a blog about philosophy in public affairs

What does it mean to be a spectator to injustice everwhere?

Given that this blog is inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”, it seemed obvious to me that the topic for this week’s blog had to be the injustice perpetrated by the state of Israel. However as I sat down to write I realized that there is very little I could write that hasn’t already been written and shared a million times over (often thanks to social media). So instead I would like to raise a few questions about the relationship between ‘injustice anywhere’ and ‘spectatorship’*. With regard to this relationship I would like to briefly raise the following six questions.
1.     What does our commitment to justice mean if we allow our attention to be easily distracted – whether by sports, consumerism, etc?
2.     Is it easier to get involved in a struggle for justice when one does not feel responsible?
3.     How, and why, has our sense of direct political responsibility for injustice changed over time? Has it become harder to find a reason to act out against injustice?
4.     Setting aside questions of privacy etc., has Facebook (and other such social media sites) helped make people more or less politically informed and/or active?
5.     What does it do to the spectator when we feel a strong sense of injustice combined with an immense feeling of helplessness?
6.     Does not knowing what a just solution would be for a particular situation make it harder to speak up against injustice?
1.    The past two weeks this blog focused on what was central to so many across the globe – world cup football. Looking at my Facebook feed – it is clear that for many people who identify (in some manner) as being committed to justice (e.g. as activists, academics etc.) our attention was divided between the horrors in Gaza and the desire to be distracted by the drama of football. But even with all the excitement of world cup football, politics and injustice were always in the shadows. Furthermore, thanks to some players issues such as sexism, racism, poverty and even Gaza were (momentarily) brought to the forefront of the viewers minds. While I can’t pretend that I didn’t appreciate the distraction of the world cup, I am disappointed in myself. Why was it so easy to get caught up the excitement of the Red Devils when it was surrounded by so much injustice – both that directly connected to world cup football (and discussed over the past two weeks on this blog) and in so many other parts of the world? The question I was forced to ask myself was: am I as committed to justice as I pretend to be? Can such a fickle commitment offer any serious challenge to injustice? Or, is it possible that these types of distractions, sports, consumerism, entertainment etc., are intentionally created as part of the structures of injustice (as was proposed by members of the Frankfurt Schule)?
2.  Another consideration is whether it is easier to be an active spectator in situations of injustice when one does not feel responsible? In other words, does participation – even for example something as simple as enjoying a football match – make it harder to speak out against the structural problems connected to FIFA, etc. This certainly seems to be the case with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While there is no doubt that European history, European nation-states, and the EU have all played a significant role in this conflict most spectators do not feel personally responsible (except perhaps as consumerists of Israeli products). Could this be one of the reasons why there are many self proclaimed non-political people (e.g. on social media) who are now willing to make political statements?
3. A third question I wish to raise regarding the relationship between injustice and spectatorship is how, and why, has our sense of responsibility for injustice changed over time? Has it become harder to find a reason to act out against injustice? According to Margaret Canovan “Amid the turmoil of revolutionary activity in the nineteenth century, one of the less-noticed effects of the historical and sociological theories invented at that time was a weakening of man’s sense of direct responsibility for politics” (288). Canovan’s claim is that academic theories from the nineteenth century, which sought to introduce stability in chaotic times, actually contributed to the disempowerment of collective actions, such as those against injustice, and a lessening of our sense of responsibility for injustice. Or could it be the simple fact that we are now, more than ever, aware of how much injustice there is everywhere that we find it harder to decide which struggle to contribute to? Or are we in fact more aware of injustice and committed to justice today then ever before?
4.    Closely connected to the previous question, one of the interesting realities of this current Gaza conflict has been the struggle between classical media sources (tv, newspapers, radio) and social media. There are several national settings in which the attention paid to the tragedies in Gaza by way of social media forced the more pro-Israel classical media sources to report on events in Gaza, and to reframe stories in a more balanced manner.  The question this raises is whether Facebook (and other such social media sites) have helped to make more politically informed spectators? Has Facebook created a virtual public sphere and is this to more political participation?
5.     After less than a week since this most recent Israel-Palestine conflict began, many spectators have begun to express a sense of immense frustration and helplessness. What can they, across the world, behind their computer screen, possibly do to prevent this injustice? Setting aside the question of what can actually be done, I think it might be worth asking what does it do to a spectator when we feel a strong sense of injustice combined with an immense feeling of helplessness? Does it make us more or less likely to act or does it further contribute to a weakening sense of direct responsibility for politics?
6.   Last but not least, a question that is perhaps true for most situations of injustice but glaringly so with regard to the Middle East conflict: does not knowing what a just solution would be make it harder to speak up against injustice? Having spent my afternoon at a pro-Palestinian demonstration, I was struck by how divided both the actors and spectators were. While most participants were willing to make statements (in front of a camera) regarding the need to stop the injustices against Palestinians, it was much harder to find volunteers to make specific political proposals. Speaking to the spectators – in this case the people who came to observe the demonstration and who expressed outrage at the injustice of the state of Israel – many chose not to participate because they didn’t know what a just resolution to this conflict should be. Is it the case that the gap between identifying injustice and outlining justice prevents many spectators from becoming actors?

*A spectator is someone sitting safely behind their computer or television screen observing, reading, blogging, passionately debating etc. situations of injustice.


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  1. Thanks for this, Anya. The blog post is very arresting and resonates very strongly with me, as I am sure it will with many others.

    I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on what role you think psychologists have in answering these questions. It seems to me that the six important questions that you mention are all ones, to a greater or lesser extent, about human moral psychology. This is suggested by the focus on feelings of responsibility and on how easy or hard it is to respond to injustice. I am tempted to say, therefore, that if we want to know the answers to these questions, we should simply ask the experts about the psychological dynamics of moral motivation. I appreciate that this reply is somewhat simplistic, but do you think that there is some mileage in the core idea?

  2. Thanks Anya. I mostly agree your first point about being distracted from Gaza by the World Cup (perfectly summed up in this photo). Though I think the World Cup was more intentionally used to cover up corruption, inequality and violence in Brazil than in Gaza. The focus on the World Cup rather than Gaza is I think instead part of a more unintentional/unconscious process related to the media's commercial incentives and being less concerned with non-Western victims. That said I'm sure the Israeli government were more than happy for the distraction, and who knows might even have encouraged it.

  3. I have to admit that besides a few articles – specifically with regard to mass psychology and trauma – I know very little about this topic from a psychological perspective but would be very happy to have suggestions. What I do think is worth considering, alluded to in the quote from Canovan, is her claim that fields, including psychology, have helped weaken a political sense of collectivity and responsibility. Even it seems that mass psychology looks at masses in terms of multiplicity, copies f the same, rather than a plurality of distinct identities. I am also quite unsure whether these questions can be reduced to expert matters of psychology and feelings – I think there is more to politics than this and it concerns me that we often reduce politics to either economics, psychology or emotion. Perhaps this is a bit of Arendtian inspired nostalgia but I do believe people, when empowered and inspired, can do much more than what economics or psychologists predict or assume.

  4. Absolutely in agreement Bruno, I wasn't trying to suggest that the World Cup was a cover-up for Gaza. However there are several articles online which argue that the Israei military had found the three dead bodies well over a month ago but was waiting to make the story public when they felt they were 1) best prepared to attack 2) Ramadan had started and 3) the news was focused elsewhere.

  5. That's a helpful clarification. Thanks, Anya. I experience a similar unease at attempts to reduce certain questions to matters of psychology. However, I'm unsure of the basis of this unease. In the end, I am tempted to conclude that my unease lacks any principled basis and thus should be rejected. This looks true at last until I can find an argument to suggest otherwise. Do you have such an argument in mind?

    Two very small things. First, my thought isn't that there is no more to politics than economics, psychology, or emotion. I think that there are lots of distinctive normative political questions. My concern, though, is over the questions that you mention in particular. Perhaps these questions can be reduced to psychology. Second, I am unsure about whether psychologists are in fact working on these kinds of questions. The point is only that, if we wanted to know the answers, it would be best to adopt a psychological (rather than, say, normative) perspective.

  6. Anya, thank you for this post. Pretty much all of these questions struck a chord with my feelings about certain recent events. But I also had a similar thought to Tom. I read your post three times and on each occasion I have tried to imagine what I would say if I were asked for responses to the questions. But on 1, 2, 3, & 6 I seem to fall back on my ideas about moral psychology and on 4 & 5 I seem to fall back on my ideas about cause-effect relationships in social science. This process leads me to Tom’s thought that I might simply be less well-positioned than someone in these fields to address the questions. Thus, I wonder whether it might help here to outline a possible alternative. One possibility that came to mind relates to 1. Here, I wondered whether there might be some mileage in a parallel to a comment sometimes made about the distinction between act- and rule-utilitarianism. To wit, that the latter is preferable because the former would be too mentally taxing, asking us to calculate all of the outcomes of all of our decisions, and lead to sub-optimal performance. I guess that to test this claim, we, again, need some evidence from psychology. But the thought might help shape our thinking in some ways. For example, it might suggest that, under certain conditions, a moral justification could be provided for allowing ourselves to be distracted by events such as the world cup (or some unobjectionable equivalent): that having some time free from harnessing our moral objections might allow us to express them better or more forcefully at other times (and, thus, be more effective on net). Is something like this idea a useful place for, say, normative theory to contribute?

  7. Hi Anya, I agree that these are huge and important questions, and I share your worry, expressed in point no. 5, that watching without doing anything (maybe because of a sense that one cannot do anything) might make us even more passive (although I also think that there is an element of moral psychology there on which I'd be interested in empirical studies). I was wondering whether one might derive certain duties (or maybe recommendations, in a weaker sense) for both spectators and journalists (in a broad sense – as those who bring the news to our computer screens) from that. The details would have to be filled in by more empirical knowledge than I have, but I was thinking roughly along the following lines: as a spectator, don't allow yourself to be a voyeur, and stop watching certain kinds of news if you feel that they make you more passive (for example because they lead to feelings of absolute hopelessness) – so there might be an element of self-care, and self-management in how one takes up certain kinds of news, which could maybe best be captured in virtue ethical terms, as cultivating a certain character as a spectator. On the part of journalists, there might also be duties with regard to the ways in which they present news. For example, they could link to webpages where one can sign petitions (assuming that we have reasons to think that petitions can have a positive effect, rather than being a cheap replacement for other kinds of political action). I don't know much about the ethics of journalism, but it seems to me that in addition to other virtues such as truthfulness and objectivity (and maybe even sometimes in some tension to them?), there can be virtues that concern the ways in which one presents news about injustices that lead to the problems of spectatorship that you discuss.

  8. Thanks Tom and Andrew for pushing me further on this point. First, a confession – I am not a normative political philosopher which means there is a risk we talk past each other. My unease arises from both an argument and recent events. The argument is that politics is the sphere of human interactions and while all other domains play a role – such as psychology, economics, religion, etc – reducing or even trying to reduce politics to anyone domain – to achieve some clarity or control is precisely how we destroy the complex dynamics of an active democracy. Another way to express this is by saying if we try to understand politics in terms of profit-orientation we can't understand it but we will of course see some economic logic present – the danger is then that we allow this logic to rule – as is the case today – where we have non-elected experts or technocrats ruling countries like Monti. This touches on how I would respond to you Andrew – and specifically the comment "I might simply be less well-positioned than someone in these fields to address the questions". While of course people in the field have eye-witness or hands on experience, my view of politics – similar to whats known as radical democracy – rejects the idea that one point of view could ever be best but that rather for any real democratic agonism we need as many different perspectives as possible and all participants to be fully empowered to present their views. As soon as we begin to defer to experts, radical democracy is in trouble because people are less like to be active and agonistic participants.

  9. Thanks for your comment Lisa. With regard to the journalism question, I know a little as I've taught some course on political communication but I am also perhaps overly influenced by Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQhEBCWMe44. The basic point is that since the news media are now privately owned – for the most part (and those that are governement owned are too heavily influenced by lobbyists), whatever ethics of journalism we once had is gone. Perhaps worth looking up if you are interested in such questions is Walter Lippmann and especially his debate with John Dewey (published in the The Phantom Public (1925)) regarding the need for experts or not (for similar reasons as I wrote above) with regard to journalism.
    As for duties of spectators, I like this idea and think it s worth pursuing – especially teaching people how to weigh different sources of information and deliberate on them but I also want to think about what societal structures benefit from disempowered citizens and perhaps put responsibility on these – again I have neo-liberalism and corporations in mind. The internet is a gift to active citizens as they can – for free – peruse many media sources, compare, contrast weight perspectives make informed decisions but then the step to action is made impossibly difficult today where protesting is often deemed illegal, petitions are ignored, civil disobediance is highly punished – so what options are left that are not deemed terrorist?

  10. Thanks for your reply, Anya! I'm absolutely with you about not just holding individuals responsible, but also thinking about social structures. I do not think that all ethics of journalism is dead; I've met quite a few people in journalism who try hard to be ethical in what they describe as increasingly difficult working conditions. I think as spectators, we should try to support these journalists (or activists), as far as possible. Not sure how much of a difference this can make, but nonetheless…

  11. This is helpful, Anya. I think that I am beginning to get a better idea of where our disagreement lies. Let me try to push the point a bit further, though.

    In particular, I am interested in your rejection of the claim that 'one point of view [in politics] could ever be best'. This strikes me as a somewhat curious claim, and one that seems very counter-intuitive to me. Let's take one of the questions you mention, 'What does it do to the spectator when we feel a strong sense of injustice combined with an immense feeling of helplessness?' It seems to me that there will certainly be some answers to this question that are worse than others. If this is true, some answers will be better than others, and this prompts us to consider which is the best. I'd be interested to hear where you think the mistake is in this reasoning.

    More generally, I also disagree with the claim that 'we need as many different perspectives as possible'. This looks especially clear in the case of empirical questions, of the kind you raise. Why should it be good that people have diverse empirical beliefs rather than the correct ones?

  12. I think both academics and journalists are suffering from the reduced possibilities of a diminishing public sphere ruled by a market/neo-liberal logic. So yes I agree we need to support journalists with ethics and I think there is space to do so now that many papers have moved online.

  13. Thanks for pushing the point further Tom, it's one of the best aspects of philosophy 😉 Let me separate your questions. First regarding – 'one point of view [in politics] could ever be best' – let me be less sloppy – the greatest threat to politics is when there is only point of view as this ends debate, discussion and precisely what keeps democracy alive. It is for this reason that I want to argue that politics is the realm of doxa/opinions of which there are always many and expert-science is the realm of truth when there can be 'the best answer'. For a great account of this read Arendt's Truth and Politics piece. So with regard to the issue I raised indeed depending on your time, place, situation etc there are better/worse answers but we can never say which is best unless we situate best in terms of time/space/power etc. As for the last point, it relates tot he first, in politics we need as many different voices and perspectives as possible to have an active and vibrant democracy. Science/experts have the opposite goal – to reduce to one true voice. facts are facts but in he political realm we interpret and debate their relevance which is always disputable. I think there are many examples in the Israeli-Palestine conflict that each side claim as fact but the other side denies – this is politics.

  14. Anya, you draw quite a sharp line between politics and science. You also say that 'facts are facts' and that science has the goal 'to reduce to one true voice'. I'd be interested to hear why you think psychological questions fall into 'politics' rather than 'science'. I'm a little suspicious of the divide you draw but, to the extent that I accept it, it seems clear that psychology is a science not part of politics. (Of course, this is not to say that psychology has no implications for politics. Indeed, I think that, at some level, all science has implications for politics.)

  15. Implications absolutely but it should not be able to end the debate or silence the opposition – this is increasingly a danger as people are now so alienated from politics (which of course is of great benefit to our neo-liberal governments)

  16. Again, do you mean 'end the debate about the science' or 'end the debate about the politics'? I'm in agreement that it should end the latter, but thats not the point at hand. The former is the point relevant to the post.

    More generally, it strikes me that this is a topic in which it is important to keep apart several different thoughts that are commonly (but in my opinion mistakenly) put together.

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