When I started this column as a freshman, my goal was to create a space where I could share my interest in international social and political affairs. As a senior, that goal has remained the largely same. A writer’s job, however, goes beyond informing; he or she must strive for two additional things, that is, to approximate the truth of a particular issue and to exhort others to action on the basis of the truth they receive.
Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s understanding of history as a “cycle” of mentions and silences is relevant to any discussion on truth. Trouillot, a Haitian academic and anthropologist who taught at the University of Chicago, suggested that constructing a historical narrative inevitably involves foregrounding some aspects of a given event at the expense of others. The sum of these mentions and silences is what we accept as historical reality. This principle holds true in media, where the constant barrage of dominant ideas and images mold our understanding of others and ourselves. As Nigerian writer Chris Abani put it at TEDTalks, it is the “agents of our imagination” that construct our reality.
Similarly, on a recent interview with Al-Jazeera, Kenyan writer and journalist Binyavanga Wainaina pointed out that Africa is unfairly portrayed as the epicenter of suffering with frequent images of emaciated schoolchildren, war and safaris beamed across the world. The full picture of the continent, he complained, rarely ever reaches mainstream news.
In his critically-acclaimed satirical essay, “How to Write About Africa,” Wainaina humorously recommends that anyone reporting on Africa should “Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title.” More than that, “Whichever angle you take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your important book, Africa is doomed.” Wainaina shows essentially how even well-trained western journalists and academics — so-called “experts” on Africa — perpetuate stereotyped images of Africa that discounts much of the progress taking place, such as businesses coming in or the rise of industrial sectors.
Although a more robust approximation of truth is apt to implode stereotypes and misconceptions, this does not discount the reality of human suffering and thus our responsibility to respond to it. Though Africa, and for that matter the rest of the non-Western world, is not the sum of its misfortunes, there are still legitimate issues that need to be addressed, namely the spread of HIV/AIDS, human trafficking, political instability and bolstering response to natural calamities.
Last week, for example, the United Nations reported that 260,000 Somalians, half of them children, died in a drought-induced famine from 2010 to 2012. The statistic itself is less shocking than the fact that the deaths (approximately 356 per day over two years) happened without anyone batting an eye or raising a voice, at least on this campus. Perhaps the apathy stems from having too much information, the overload producing a sort of moral inertia that blankets our willingness to know about some place as seemingly obscure on our mental maps as Somalia.
Or perhaps, we don’t care enough because we know that our resources and capacity to care are limited. But is this a legitimate response, especially when we are so quick to proclaim that “the sky is the limit” as far as personal ambition goes?
Why is it that our selfishness seems to draw from an infinite ocean of inspiration, whereas our capacity to care for others seems dismally short on gas most of the time? The dissonance is evident, and future generations will be quick to point out that we are not doing enough with what we have — money, information, travel, access to experts and organizations, etc.
As my last entry, I want to reiterate that we must balance the necessity to approximate truth with a willingness to act when we do get to the “truth” of a matter. What happens outside the Euro-American bubble may seem distant and remote, but only if we let it. Stereotyping and apathy are, to put it curtly, symptoms of ignorance. And in a place premised upon knowledge, this should not be the case.
In an era of increasingly intense and rapid cross-cultural encounters, we are less able to conceive of others and ourselves as existing in a vacuum. People have always been changing as they move in time and place, so the Asia or Africa you thought you knew after watching “Mulan” and “The Lion King” is most likely not even close to reality. There are countless reasons to burst our bubbles, the Knox one especially, but no one can do it for anyone else but themselves. I say, be informed, read voraciously and then act.