In recognition of the third anniversary of the Syrian conflict, UK-based charity Save the Children released its “Most Shocking Second a Day” video depicting the devastating effects of war if it struck England. Intended to raise awareness of the struggles of Syrian child refugees, the video follows a young British girl whose seemingly normal life is ravaged by a year of conflict, famine, and forced flight. The now viral video has more than 28.5 million views on YouTube. Although it has been commended by countless sources as an eye-opening portrayal of the severity of the situation in Syria, there are serious ethical implications in refocusing the conflict in the scope of western society.
The Save the Children ad closes with the quote, “Just because it isn’t happening here, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.” This idea of placing a foreign conflict in another society’s shoes is a popular method of tapping into the empathy of western audiences. While it may indeed serve to elicit an emotional response, the audience is not necessarily learning about the actual struggles of the conflict; instead, they are empathising with a hypothetical account of the conflict in terms of their own lives.
By not accurately illustrating the deeply rooted hardships associated with the harrowing crisis in Syria, Save the Children promotes an understanding of the situation only in relation to our own world and marginalises the plight of the suffering Syrian people. Showing how a young British girl’s life could potentially be turned upside down by a gruesome civil war is not equivalent to showing the actual experiences of those whose lives have already been affected by violence.
It is frankly not the place of western society to try and adopt the issues of other societies as their own in order to attempt to understand them. Learning about war and experiencing war are two very different concepts, something for which the western world generally lacks appreciation. As academic Carolyn Nordstrom notes in her book A Different Kind of War Story, the many forms of violence are highly personal experiences that are rooted in self-identity and culture. Those who do not have a firsthand experience of the violence will never completely understand it. However, only those who pull from firsthand experiences will come close to a comprehensive understanding.
Nordstrom notes the story of a Mozambican woman who experienced the horrors of her nation’s civil war. In regards to outsiders who try to make sense of her situation, the woman remarks that “their life, their very being, is not determined by the war”. Observers face no personal ramifications for their interpretations, judgements, and decisions about conflict. Contrarily, the livelihood of victims of conflict is always at risk and can be affected by even the slightest of actions. The most accurate and ethical explanations of war will stem from a collection of accounts of those directly affected by its atrocities. Save the Children’s video campaign not only fails to feature any stories of Syrians, but also undermines the region’s hardships by attempting to elicit empathy through the imagined struggles of the unaffected western world.
Due to the sensitive nature of recounting the stories of victims of global crisis, the question arises about what leads western advocacy groups like Save the Children to distort these original experiences. Today’s highly globalised world has resulted in extraordinary advancements in the spread of information. Media outlets are constantly bombarding individuals with sensationalised news reports that are more concerned with garnering reader attention than serving an honest and unbiased account of the facts. To appeal to the emotions of the audience, the media tends to prioritise certain aspects of human suffering, like starving children and the spread of disease, to which the western population can relate. These tragedies are supposedly “understood” by the audience because they can imagine how a lack of food or health would negatively impact their own lives.
Largely missing from the media are aspects of conflicts that seem beyond the comprehension of the western world. Reasons for disputes such as unfamiliar religions, politics, or existing cultural issues are not properly addressed by news reports. These factors require detailed and consistent coverage over the span of the conflict. Instead they are barely or poorly reported while media outlets focus on aspects like starvation or disease that elicit empathy and subsequent interest from the audience.
Dangers of this selective reporting were made evident in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. After the end of the genocide in July of 1994, The Guardian published an article titled “Rwandan Apocalypse”. The article focused not on the state-sponsored genocide that resulted in the deaths of nearly a million people, but on a budding cholera outbreak in a refugee camp in Goma. Western populations were believed more capable of understanding and empathising with disease than the culturally fuelled genocide. Though not mentioned in The Guardian report, the Goma camp was also run by former genocidal militias who fled with over a million civilians that they forced at gunpoint or with threatening propaganda. The Guardian’s selective reporting was partially responsible for a great deal of donated resources being allocated to the perpetrators of genocide residing in the camps, as opposed to the suffering survivors and victims of the violence.
Media sensationalism of the global community’s issues not only marginalises the hardships of those suffering, but also leads to a type of emotive numbness. If all regional conflicts become simplified to certain aspects like starvation and disease, the audience starts to believe in the normalcy of these conditions and begins to lose their empathy for the subjects. This phenomenon of compassion fatigue proves that there is little benefit to overriding the facts and experiences of the suffering to appeal to the emotions of the western observer.
It is evident that Save the Children is trying to make a positive difference in the lives of the Syrian refugees. Nonetheless, the means employed by the organisation to spread awareness of the Syrian conflict are questionable. The video’s intention is to fight ignorance about the Syrian conflict. By making it about the imagined plight of a western girl, the audience finishes the video still ignorant about the situation in Syria. Even if western advocacy groups and media outlets are driven by good will, marginalising the struggles of victims of conflict has serious ramifications that cannot be ignored. Instead of trying to spread awareness of foreign experiences by simplifying and relocating them to the realms of our own, those who make the decision to tell the story of other individuals’ suffering must make every effort to stay true to the victims’ experiences.