Other People’s Misery

Have you ever wondered why it is so easy to switch the TV channel when an image of distant suffering presents itself? Why is it that we, as human beings, have the capacity to ignore the plight of sufferers who we regard as different?

To be honest, I had never really concerned myself too much with the issue. That is, until I was asked to really think about it. Is it because we see so many images on a daily basis that our capacity to feel shame and pity are reduced? Is it because we are helpless to act and would rather avert our gaze than commit to a futile gesture of action? Is it because we, in the western world, perhaps harbor some guilt at our privilege in relation to the suffering so commonplace outside of our neo-liberal economic bubble?

I’m still not sure. For anybody with a tentative interest in such questions I am posting an essay I wrote on the topic. I’m not sure on the logistics of posting academic essays or if anybody would want to read it. I’ll leave in the references, bibliography etc. Please comment if you like it or, indeed, if you think its weak, badly written, boring or just plain terrible. I will refrain from posting links to photographic horrors.

  1.  Has the mediation of ‘distant suffering’ been responsible for the creation of a new cosmopolitan ethics or has it turned us into passive voyeurs? Make use of two or more theorists in your answer.

This essay will discuss the extent to which the mediation of distant suffering has the potential to create a new cosmopolitan ethics or turn spectators into passive voyeurs. It will focus on the western spectator of distant suffering. The essay will begin by addressing the concerns of Susan Sontag in relation Voyeurism. It will proceed to suggest a way in which spectators can elevate themselves above the impotence of voyeurism through the employment of effective speech and a focus on current events, after Luc Boltanski. The essay will then shift focus from the spectator to the mediation of distant suffering itself. It will examine the theories of Lillie Chouliaraki on how best to encourage a cosmopolitan ethics through ways in which distant suffering is presented in the news media. Finally, the essay will critically discuss the shortcomings of this argument.

Writing in 1977, Susan Sontag concerned herself with distant suffering through the mediation of photography. In On Photography, she discusses the moral and ethical consequences of viewing such images. She is, of course, writing about the western spectator of distant suffering. For Sontag, a photograph can never actually create a moral position. Rather, photography can only affect public opinion or encourage action when there is a pre-existing context, feeling or attitude towards the suffering depicted (Sontag, 2008: 17). Photography as a mediation can only reinforce a previously held moral position or build a nascent one. If the spectator has no context with which to view and understand the suffering than how can he/she be expected to act? It would seem that in this instance the western spectator is rendered a voyeur to the suffering depicted in the photograph. Another concern, for Sontag, is the capacity for the mediation of distant suffering to dull the spectator’s feelings of shock, compassion and pity for the plight of the sufferer. Photographs can make incidents of suffering more real but at the same time they can anaesthetise the western spectator to the pain and suffering they depict (Sontag, 2008: 20). We live in a world where the spectatorship of distant suffering is commonplace. The mediation of suffering is all around us. The western spectator is bombarded with such images on a daily basis from the media. Indeed, she calls the relentless exposure to distant suffering a hyper-saturation of images (Sontag, 2003: 93). With each exposure comes a diminished capacity for compassion, shock, shame or action. Photography can only shock in so far as it is novel or original and with each viewing of distant suffering the threshold for compassion rises (Sontag, 2008: 19). The more anaesthetised the western spectator becomes to distant suffering, through a constant exposure to photographed horrors in the media, the less capable they are to empathise or sympathise and ultimately the less likely they are to act. A spectator who views images of suffering without compassion or pity and with no intention of acting can be categorised as little but a voyeur. The process by which the western spectator becomes anaesthetised to distant suffering is referred to by other authors as compassion fatigue (Moeller, 1999; Tester, 1999). It will be referred to as such from here on in.

Confusingly, in 2003, Susan Sontag questions her assertions about compassion fatigue posited 30 years previously. In Regarding the Pain of Others, she demands to see the evidence for the argument that the western culture of spectatorship fosters a neutralisation of the moral force of photographs (Sontag, 2003: 94). This turn away from meditation and philosophy towards empiricism seems in utter contrast to the rest of her writings regarding the mediation of distant suffering. Nonetheless, she shifts the focus of compassion fatigue from the constant exposure to images to the helplessness or impotence of the western spectator. It is no longer a question of the quantity of images the spectator is exposed to but ‘passivity’ that anaesthetises our capacity to feel (Sontag, 2003:91). The mediation of distant suffering, through images on television, creates an imaginary proximity or closeness to the suffering that simply does not exist. Thus, the spectator is rendered impotent. The western spectator cannot act in any meaningful way given the contradistinction between the imagined proximity of the spectator to the sufferer, and the actual political, geographical and time differences that exists (Sontag, 2003: 91). Sontag tells us that:

‘Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence.’ (Sointag, 2003: 91).

However, the western spectator is not necessarily even innocent. Very often the people suffering and the reasons for their suffering have a direct link to the western spectator’s privileged status. As Sontag says:

‘…the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others…’ (Sontag, 2003: 92).

Jon Berger concurs with this implication of the western spectator’s guilt and perhaps takes it a step further. He proposes that most images of suffering in the media are the result of wars which are fought, either directly or by proxy, in the name of western privilege. Since the western spectator can do little to effect the conduct of these wars their reactions are rendered morally inadequate (Berger, 1972: 44).

Whether by constant exposure to images of brutality and suffering or through the passivity and impotence brought about by the spectators distance or privilege the result is the same: the spectator’s ability to react to the images becomes gradually eroded as they become more and more anaesthetised. Therefore, the western spectator is more often than not reduced to the role of passive voyeur. For Sontag, time is also a critical factor in how a spectator will receive an image of suffering. The longer the duration of the time between the act of suffering and the act of viewing the mediated suffering, the harder it is for the viewer to feel genuine compassion and the more difficult it becomes to act (Sontag, 2008: 20). As the understanding of the context behind a photograph’s suffering will change over time, so inevitably will the way in which the western spectator perceives it. The greater the time elapsed coupled with the exposure to other more ghastly images will inevitably result in a reduction of the original image to art (Sontag, 2008: 21). Just as viewing a painting may illicit emotions but encourage no action, so a photograph from history will do the same. Again the western spectator is reduced to voyeur as he/she is utterly incapable of acting to affect the suffering depicted.  Photographs of suffering have the capacity to both shock and shame the western spectator. They cannot act to change the outcome of such situations to any meaningful extent. Sontag suggests that perhaps the only people with a moral right to view such mediated suffering are those who could either learn from them and affect change in the future, or perhaps act in the moment to the benefit of the sufferers. Examples include surgeons, aid workers or military personnel (Sontag, 2002: 89). The western spectator has never and probably will never experience the suffering with which they are confronted in the media. Therefore, they can never imagine or fully comprehend how horrifying war is. Nor will they ever realise quite how normal it can become to those who suffer it (Sontag, 2003: 113). Because the western spectator has no genuine understanding of suffering and no means by which to affect it, they are again rendered impotent and reduced to voyeurs. Those who suffer and others who actively engage with those suffering to alleviate or eradicate it have a right to view the mediation of suffering, however, in the words of Sontag.

‘The rest of us are Voyeurs, whether we like it or not.’ (Sontag, 2002: 89).

Sontag’s views on the mediation of distant suffering are pessimistic portraying the spectator as a passive voyeur. The essay will now proceed to examine a more optimistic theory of how the western spectator can employ action and reject voyeurism.

Luc Boltanski, in Distant Suffering, suggests an alternative for the spectator of mediated distant suffering to the role of passive voyeur. The spectator has an option to express themselves through effective speech. For Boltanski, the act of speech is itself a form of action which can, under certain circumstances, become political. It is through speech that the spectator can elevate themselves above the passivity of voyeurism. In order for speech to become an action, it must contain the same properties as action. These are intentionality, incorporation of bodily gestures, sacrifice of other possible actions, the presence of someone else, and a commitment (Boltanski, 1999 :185). Effective speech must be intentional to lift it above idle chatter. It requires a physical act and a sacrifice to make it legitimate. Once effective speech is communicated to others, it has the capacity to create a collective. This collective can be mobilised into collective action (Boltanski, 1999: 186). The act of speech can foster genuine political action in this way. It is when the spectator of mediated distant suffering employs effective speech to mobilise like minded individuals that he/she is no longer voyeur and has become active. Having illustrated how effective speech can be a tool for action the essay will now discuss how a moral spectator can perceive distant suffering in order to employ effective speech.

Boltanski is concerned by the conditions under which the spectatorship of mediated distant suffering becomes morally acceptable (Boltanski, 1999: xv). He identifies three specific modes or topics of emotional commitment open to the moral spectator of distant suffering. These are the topic of denunciation, the topic of sentiment and the aesthetic mode. Although the spectator is at first condemned to inaction, he/she does have emotional options available that can lead to action. The topic of denunciation involves an original feeling of pity, which is then transformed by indignation and acquires the weapons of anger (Boltanski, 1999:57).The focus of this anger becomes a persecutor whom moral spectators must identify for themselves. All emotion is redirected from the sufferer to a persecutor (Boltanski, 1999 :115). The distance between the persecutor and the spectator limits the spectator’s action to the realm of speech. The action available to the spectator is an accusation and condemnation of the persecutor (Boltanski, 1999: 57). This speech becomes a call for mobilisation against the perpetrators responsible for the suffering. Therefore, it becomes a political act (Boltanski, 1999: 131).

The second topic of sentiment does not involve a search for a persecutor. Rather, the focus is on the search for a benefactor (Boltanski: 1999: 77). Instead of passing through indignation, violence and condemnation, the spectator’s original pity takes the form of tender-heartedness (Boltanski: 1999: 77). Again the spectator’s distance limits his action to the realm of speech. The spectator must make urgency a priority if his speech is to be understood as action (Boltanski: 1999: 80). Speaking about the urgency of the need for action to aid a benefactor has the capacity to bring people of good will together in a common cause. It becomes a mobilisation to the cause of the benefactor and becomes politicised (Boltanski, 1999: 131).

The final mode of emotional response is the aesthetic topic. It arises from the criticisms of the first two. In the first case, indignation can be criticised as being a disguised and possibly unfair persecution. Similarly, the topic of sentiment can be construed as an indulgent enjoyment which is unaware of its own short comings (Boltanski, 1999: 115). In the aesthetic topic the suffering is no longer considered unjust. Therefore, the spectator can no longer become indignant. Nor can it be considered touching so as to evoke tender-heartedness. Rather, the suffering is only considered sublime (Boltanski, 1999: 115). The aesthetic topic has its roots in art. This topic renders action through speech very problematic. For Boltanski, this topic may limit action as it inspires a purely individual relationship to distant suffering (Boltanski, 1999: 131). The possibility for collective mobilisation through speech is no longer an option as the spectator’s emotional response to the suffering is selfish and rooted in the individual. This topic seems very close to Sontag’s view. Namely, when an extended time period exists between the incident of suffering depicted and the spectators viewing of the image, the image is reduced to the realm of art. The aesthetic topic would seem to negate action and reduce the spectator to voyeurism. As Boltanski says, the topic of denunciation is ‘most effective in the domain in which it was born – that of fiction.’ (Boltanski, 1999: 146). However, after empirically analysing audience responses to distant suffering, Hoijer illustrates that the aesthetic topic is very difficult to identify. The topics of sentiment and denunciation are readily identifiable but the aesthetic is absent. Rather, he identifies two other topics. One in which pity is combined with shame and one in which it is combined with powerlessness (Hoijer, 2004: 522). Neither of these responses would block speech nor discourage political mobilisation.

Just as time was an issue for Sontag, Boltanski calls on the spectator of mediated suffering to focus his emotional attention on current sufferings. This would orientate any action towards current sufferers, persecutors and benefactors. Current suffering is suffering which can be acted upon and alleviated. The mediation of past sufferings can lead to the sublimation of suffering. Boltanski says:

‘For over the past, ever gone by, and over the future, still nonexistent, the present has an overwhelming privilege: that of being real’ (Boltanski: 1999, 192).

When the spectator utilises effective speech to condemn a persecutor or aid a benefactor, they must marry their speech to the present and focus on real situations where action can make a difference. In doing so, the western spectator can go beyond the role of passive voyeur and enter the realm of action. No longer impotent, the spectator has an alternative to voyeurism in that he/she can utilise effective speech and mobilise and politicise fellow citizens.

Botanski has shown how the western spectator of distant suffering can move beyond voyeurism by utilising effective speech. However, the burden of action is firmly placed on the individual spectator’s shoulders. The essay will now switch the focus of the discussion from the role of the spectator to the role of the mediation of distant suffering itself. It will show that the way in which suffering is mediated has the potential to encourage a more cosmopolitan action in the western spectator.

Lillie Chouliaraki, in the Spectatorship of Suffering, is concerned with how the mediation of distant suffering itself can promote either a communitarian or a cosmopolitan action from the western spectator. Communitarian action involves the spectator acting on suffering that is relevant and proximate to the community to which the spectator imagines themselves to belong (Chouliaraki, 2006: 196). In this case, the community is generally the nation, the region or the broader concept of western society. Cosmopolitanism demands an action from the spectator on behalf of ‘others’ who are not readily identifiable as part of their own communities (Chouliariaki, 2006: 196). She analyses portrayals of distant suffering in the international news media. Three types of news coverage are identified: adventure news, ecstatic news and emergency news. The first two tend to promote communitarian action while the third has the potential to encourage cosmopolitanism (Chouliaraki, 2006: 94).

The portrayal of distant suffering in adventure news restricts the potential for ethical and emotional appeals to the spectator. They are characterised by simple multi-modal narratives that only present facts (Choluliaraki, 2006: 98). The news is verbally recounted by an anchor in a studio, the victims are referred to in terms of numbers and the visual texts that accompany the narrative are in the form of screen graphics, satellite photos and maps (Chouliaraki, 2006: 99). Benefactor and persecutor are both absent in adventure news. Not only that, but the sufferers themselves are dehumanised by a process of aggregation and are portrayed as foreign. Emergency news lacks any call for denunciation or empathy. It is devoid of any agency (Chouliaraki, 2006: 104). Adventure news ultimately works against cosmopolitanism in that it blocks the western spectator’s pity for people who are not like themselves. Instead it promotes communitarian logic (Chouliariaki, 2006: 196).

Ecstatic news is news that is so extraordinary that it warrants constant coverage above and beyond the normal news bulletin. Chouliaraki uses the Manhattan terrorist attacks of September 11th which destroyed the iconic World Trade Centre as an example. The coverage consists of telephone interviews, live footage of victims, updates of the events of the day, political invectives from politicians and long contemplative shots of the Manhattan skyline. Three features of this news are identifiable. It evokes empathy with the sufferers, it denounces the perpetrators and it contains an aesthetic contemplation of the spectacle of suffering (Chouliaraki, 2006: 157). In ecstatic news the sufferer and the benefactor coincide, the sufferer can both mourn and analyse the suffering, and the sufferer can vent his/her anger at the perpetrators of the violence against their community (Chouliariaki, 2008, 378). The sufferer is instrumental in fostering a relationship between the spectator and the identity of those suffering. In this way, the news coverage of September 11th continually evoked the west as a constituted community of spectatorship. Although the gravity of events transcended the national, the discourse was not a universal one (Chouliaraki, 2008: 380). For Chouliaraki, ecstatic news ‘expands globally a demand for action on suffering that is “our” own.’ (Chouliaraki, 2006: 196). Far from evoking a sense of cosmopolitanism in the western spectator, the ecstatic news discussed above reinforces the communitarian outlook of the imagined western world.

The final type of news analysed is emergency news. Chouliaraki believes that this type of news can encourage a cosmopolitan action from the western spectator. These news stories actively produce pity in their representation of distant suffering. They offer an option for action that adventure news cannot (Chouliaraki, 2006 118). Similarly, that action can go beyond the communitarian logic of ecstatic news. She uses the example of a Nigerian woman, Amina Lawal, who is to be sentenced to death by stoning for adultery. The sufferer (Amina), the persecutor (the Islamic court and the hostile mob) and the benefactor (Amnesty International) are all present within the news piece (Chouliaraki, 2006: 142). The sufferer is thoroughly humanised in this example. She has a name and she holds her child in the courtroom (Chouliaraki, 2006: 139). The moral proposition that this news item carries for the spectator is to become a cosmopolitan citizen and to act by publicly denouncing the death sentence. The presence of Amnesty international is key to the move to cosmopolitan action (Chouliaraki, 2006: 147). They are shown actively campaigning outside the Nigerian embassy encouraging citizens to sign a petition denouncing the death penalty. In this way, the news piece holds a direct call for emergency action. It urges the western spectator to do something practical by signing the petition against the Sharia verdict (Chouliaraki, 2008: 377). The sufferer is presented as human and not just another statistic or nameless other. Her plight is drawn into a broader more universal understanding of suffering. Coupled to this is the call to action by Amnesty International and the condemnation of the persecutors. In doing so, this example of emergency news elevates the spectator far beyond the role of passive voyeur by not only actively emotionally engaging them with the suffering of a distant other, but also calling on them to take action through aiding Amnesty International’s cause and condemning the persecutors.

For Chouliaraki, the mediation of distant suffering can inspire cosmopolitan action when it is presented in the form of emergency news identified above. In terms of moving towards a cosmopolitan ethics this ideal is problematic primarily in two ways. Firstly, to be considered truly cosmopolitan, all human suffering must carry equal weight and be of equal importance. However, in the real world there is an absolute ‘excess of unfortunates.’ (Boltanski, 1999: 155). To move towards a genuine cosmopolitan ethics, all mediation of distant suffering would have to take the form of emergency news. This seems highly unlikely given the sheer volume of suffering in the world and the limited media space devoted to it. Secondly, even if it were possible to mediate distant suffering in this way, what of compassion fatigue? If all mediation of distant suffering humanised every victim and contained a call to aid a benefactor and condemn a persecutor, wouldn’t we simply become anaesthetised to the mediation in the way discussed by Sontag? It seems as though the mediation of distant suffering is very unlikely to create a genuine cosmopolitan ethics given these impracticalities.

The essay has discussed the extent to which the mediation of distant suffering has created a new cosmopolitan ethics or turned the western spectator into a passive voyeur. It has done so by critically examining the theories of three key thinkers. Susan Sontag sees a thoroughly pessimistic perspective where, ultimately, we are all passive, impotent and voyeuristic. However, Luc Boltanski illustrates how the western spectator of mediated distant suffering can elevate themselves above the role of voyeur. We can employ effective speech and mobilise to aid a benefactor or condemn a persecutor, providing we marry our speech action to mediations of present suffering. Lillie Chouliariaki contends that the way in which distant suffering is mediated, especially in the news media, can move the spectator towards cosmopolitan action. However, it seems highly improbable that any and all such mediation could ever take the form of emergency news that she discusses. Even if it did, we would surely become anaesthetised, avert our gaze or experience compassion fatigue. In Conclusion, the mediation of distant suffering has not created a cosmopolitan ethics. Nor has it turned us all into passive voyeurs. Rather, the mediation of distant suffering condemns the western spectator to walk a moral middle ground. We are more often than not passive voyeurs. Perhaps we are even slightly complicit in the suffering given our privilege and position in relation to most distant suffering. We can pick and choose which causes merit our action through effective speech. Certain forms of mediation may even encourage action more than others. However, this in no way amounts to a move towards a cosmopolitan ethics. Truly cosmopolitan ethics would require an action in all cases of mediated suffering. Such an ethical code is surely impossible as we continue to pick and choose which sufferers, benefactors and persecutors warrant our attention.



  • Berger, J. (1972) ‘Photographs of Agony’ in About Looking Berger, J. (1980) London: Bloomsbury.
  • Boltanski, L. (1999) Distant Suffering: Morality, Media and Politics. Burchell, G. (Trans.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Chouliaraki, L. (2006) The Spectatorship of Suffering. London: Sage Publications Ltd.
  • Chouliaraki, L. (2008) ‘The Mediation of Suffering and the vision of a cosmopolitan Public’ in Television and New Media Vol. 9 (5 ): 371-391.
  • Hoijer, B. (2004) ‘The Discourse of Global Compassion: the audience and media reporting of human suffering’ in Media, Culture and Society Vol. 26 (4 ): 513-531.
  • Moeller, S.D. (1999) Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death. London: Routledge.
  • Sontag, S. (2008) On Photography. London: Penguin Modern Classics.
  • Sontag, S. (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others. London: Hamish and Hamilton.
  • Sontag, S. (2002) ‘Looking at War’ in the New Yorker: December 9th2002. Retrieved on 22/04/2011 from: http://www.uturn.org/sontag_looking_at_war.pdf.
  • Tester, K. (2001) Compassion, Morality and the Media. Buckingham: Open University Press.
5 Responses to “Other People’s Misery”
  1. Well done dude! Great essay. I think your critical reflection will enable you to extricate yourself from the bankrupt student situation you are facing.

  2. Nice.

    On a tangent….I’m not sure whether 20 years of subsistence farming/war took the life out of her eyes, or slightly malicious tweaking of the whitebalance/flash by McCurry, but I get seriously freaked out by these two photos.

  3. G says:

    The question is worded so either-or which is sadly typical. I think universities do this to create polarised mindsets and focused arguments, which supposedly makes for better point-scoring essays. But of course it leads to a lack of subtlety and a lawyer-like mentality – it creates detached professional arguers. I would like to give you feedback on your essay but don’t have time to comment.

    What I think about the question is, I can take intelligent and informed action only on an issue I have intimate experience of and a personal connection to. Even then it is easy to act in error, even when one’s intentions are pure. Sometimes a mass movement can tackle a global cause for the greater good without fucking it up, but this requires an informed, motivated and organised public. What we have now is mostly apathy and spectacle – Adam Curtis calls it ‘oh dearism’. You see terrible, distant suffering and all you can do is say “oh dear” and get on with your life without changing a thing. You might feel a little more guilty and impotent – that’s the only effect of seeing starving Somalians or war in Afghanistan.

    A politicised, sane, mature society would take immediate effective action. This may yet come about; I don’t know – no one does.

  4. fancy says:

    This is a very good article i was reading for my essay therefore, my point of view to this article is Firstly, “Today, with accessible rapid means of transportation at our disposal, time and distance has been shortened. The electronic media (e.g. the Internet) provides us with an instantaneous contact with the other. However, even with these new scientific developments the question remains, has our facility for rapid physical and virtual travel really put us in contact with the other and fostered an understanding of the other?” Cuccioletta (2002) Henceforth, according to Silverstone (2006), he draws on a social theory definition of cosmopolitanism as “an orientation, a willingness to relate with the Other”. “Cosmopolitanism suggests that the spectator engages with distant suffering through a demand for action on a distant other who does not readily belong to “our” own community”. Chouliaraki (2008: 387). However, many societies have experienced a flood of information from diverse channels, originating far beyond local communities and national borders transmitted through the rapid expansion of cosmopolitan communication.

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