Monday, November 26, 2012

Mobilizing Compassion on

For my slacktivist participation I engaged with the website, a non-profit site owned by the United Nations World Food Programme where users complete quizzes on a particular subject matter. The default subject is English vocabulary, but there are others available like art history or math. The site's message to users: "For each answer you get right, we donate 10 grains of rice through the World Food Programme to help end hunger." If you get an answer right, the next question will be harder. If you get it wrong, the next question is easier. Thus, the site is a game, pitting you against yourself, hunger, and other users. There are sixty levels and as you progress in the game a flash image of a bowl fills with rice, providing visual reassurance.

The website is fully dependent on its users, as Freerice is not simply sitting on a pile of rice. When users play, ads from sponsors appear for every correct answer. The money generated by those ads is then used to purchase rice for hungry people. Freerice thus relies on the free labor of conscious individuals seeking to improve their vocabulary and help end hunger. The universal nature of the site is an important tool for attracting a wide audience, identified in its broad goals - to "provide education to everyone for free" and "to help end world hunger by providing rice to hungry people for free." In line with the ideal of democracy, the site is open to anyone, "whether you are a CEO of a large corporation or a street child in a poor country," according to the About page. The point is that "improving your education can improve your life" and, "even greater is the investment your donated rice makes in hungry human beings, enabling them to function and be productive."

The site is similar to the Kony2012 campaign, in that both rely on physical and social distance between the slacktivist and the marginalized group, but differs in its absolute failure to identify a marginalized group. Rather, the Freerice user is simply fighting the idea of hunger and helping the ambiguous group of "hungry human beings." There are no success stories presented or profiles of individuals who have benefitted from Freerice. Instead, the site simply says that there have been over 97 billion grains donated to date, and that "Somewhere in the world, a person is eating rice that you helped to provide." While I don't doubt that rice is being distributed somewhere in the world, this element of anonymity is somewhat off-putting. Instead of focusing on hungry people the site purports to help, emphasis is placed on the benefit it has on the user.

What is the effect of such diluted civic engagement? The site's reasoning seems to be that hunger as a terrible thing is already agreed upon, so no further identification is needed, but what is at stake in glossing over the details? As we observed in weeks past, anonymity can be a powerful tool for social engagement and activism.. what happens when anonymity exists not only on the side of the activist, but also on the side of the marginalized group? What does it mean that does not identify an audience for your conscious efforts? People are being fed but they are not identified, so the target of your performative efforts is the idea of hunger, a global epidemic with no clearly defined victim. As Fassin discusses, humanitarian efforts are concerned with some site of precariousness, where the enemy is not an identifiable person or group, but rather an idea - hunger, unemployment, poverty, disaster. I am reminded, too, of our discussion of 9/11, how rather than fighting against an identifiable person or group, America was fighting against the idea of terror. What is the meaning of such thinking? In the case of a humanitarian effort like, what is the effect/affect of sterilizing the issue by ignoring the victims? Is it a more effective way of dealing with structural inequalities? Less effective? How does it place (or not place) the slactivist within the network created by the humanitarian crisis? As Fassin asks: "What, ultimately, is gained, and what is lost, when we use the terms of suffering to speak of inequality... more generally when we mobilize compassion rather than justice? And what are the profits and losses incurred in opening listening centers to combat social exclusion, requiring the poor to recount their misfortunes, sending psychologists to war zones, representing war in the language of humanitarianism?" (8)...

No comments: