Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Abolition Movement vs. The Human Rights Movement: Reality vs. The Image

When pondering whether or not one can only see the truth of a political event like war when it is laid bare before one’s eyes, I can’t help but think of slavery and the abolition movement, which preceded the prevalence of the image. Indeed, there was no need to make a copy of the image, as the image of slavery was a physical reality for every American from its inception in 1620 to its abolishment in 1865. There were no spatial limitations. The image was reality, and those who felt shame were compelled to physical action. They did not result to ant-establishment blogs or exposing the calamity. Instead, they lobbied, and spread the word using their mouths—not some technological extension of the body. They used their physical limbs to create underground railroads and transport slaves to areas where freedom was a possibility. There was no need for exposure or potential for overexposure, as nothing was secret. There was nothing to be exposed or revealed: slavery was a tangible reality, a fact of American life.

Perhaps the spatial and physical barriers between modern Americas and multinational strife, hinders real action. The image of a slave bound by chains can never incite the same amount of pathos as seeing the physical slave with one’s own eyes. Direct spectators of the slaves’ pain and struggle, abolitionists were able to empathize in a profound manner. Slavery was neither private nor public, it was simply reality. Unfortunately for the present day Human Rights Movement, the image—no matter how realistic or sensational—cannot reproduce reality. It cannot produce the degree of action that true experience can. The dissemination of media propaganda can only link strangers, forming small and self-referential ‘publics.’ The abolitionist movement was a coherent collaboration between people who shared the same physical experience. Each of them had witnessed slavery, not some image blurred by the simulacrum.

Moral Psychologists argue that each individual has a 'radius' of moral obligation. That is, the further a calamity is from the individual, the less likely he is to feel a moral obligation to intervene. Accordingly, human rights activists can disseminate all the sensationally violent images of war they please, but the incident itself will always lie beyond the spatial obligations of the individual subject. Moreover, as they continue to bombard their audience with violent images of war, war becomes more and more of a movie—a property of the fantastical. People become desensitized to the violence, and instead of feeling shame, they feel sheer apathy. It would seem that truly progressive and radical action could only be catalyzed by real experience. The OED defines the verb mediate as “to act as a mediator or intermediary with (a person), for the purpose of bringing about agreement or reconciliation; to intercede with. When there is no intermediary, there is no need for reconciliation. In other words, when A is physically linked to C, there is no need for B.

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