The nature of armed conflict, though wars have existed for as long as human history is recorded, doubtless has been transformed in the course of the past century more than it did in the hundreds of years that antedated the modern era. It does not mean that the damage typical of warfare might decrease in any way or that body battles will no longer take place.
Susan Sontag wrote in 2003: “Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience, the cumulative offering by more than a century and a half’s worth of those professional, specialized tourists known as journalists. Wars are now also living room sights and sounds. Information about what is happening elsewhere, called “news,” features conflict and violence – “If it bleeds, it leads” runs the venerable guideline of tabloids and twenty-four-hour headline news shows – to which the response is compassion, or indignation, or titillation, or approval, as each misery heaves into view”.
The fact that wars are now public spectacles providing for living room sights and sounds is what most distinguishes the contemporary warfare scene from any previous scenarios. The invention of the daguerreotype, cheered as the greatest invention of all by painters and reporters alike, and the subsequent evolution into the modern journalist camera transformed the realities of war for the public space more than the realities of war were in themselves transformed.
The first important wars that the lens of the reporters captured were the Crimean War and the American Civil War but it wasn’t until the First and Second World War that the camera’s ken reached out for actual combat. Needless to explain, photography and reporting became an element of the practice of warfare from within, as we know from the horrors committed by the Nazis.
Photography, from the simple accounting of day to day training exercises to the more technologically advanced air and satellite photography, has become an indispensable element in war strategy. As per Sontag: “The war America waged in Vietnam, the first to be witnessed day after day by television cameras, introduced the home front to new tele-intimacy with death and destruction. Ever since, battles and massacres filmed as they unfold, have been a routine ingredient of the ceaseless flow of domestic, small-screen entertainment. Creating a perch for a particular conflict in the consciousness of viewers exposed to dramas from everywhere requires the daily diffusion and re-diffusion of snippets of footage about the conflict. The understanding of war among people who have not experienced war is now chiefly a product of the impact of these images.”
There has been ever since an endless number of wars and conflicts ripe with murder and brutality that we have witnessed from the comfort of our screens, interrupted by prime-time adds in the middle of the evening news featuring a complex conundrum of mixed images. Before or after the images of war and destruction, we have watched the sports sections or the plotlines of gossip and entertainment for which we have so long waited and on account of which we have born the graphic spans of mutilated corpses, ailing children and screaming women.
At this point it would be worthwhile noting that the only war we have been witness to since Vietnam, has been the decade long armed conflict in the Balkan countries; but weapons have been hardly put down and though the general status quo of the world has been quietly maintained, a certain halo of uncertainty has visited vast regions of Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America in which the number of bullets worthy of being called war have run free through the streets and have visited us at home through our satellite dishes and sometimes helped us fall sleep.
Next to the journalist, that new international tourist, a new figure caught our attention throughout the photographs, the news and the reports from war zones – the human rights activist. We saw them first marginally strolling around the photographs in the guises of nurses after the fashion of a Florence Nightingale and Simone Weil, carrying the wounded into improvised tents and caring for the dying, translating letters and smiling prudently without deference to the intruder lens.
In the first metamorphosis of the human rights activist, at the height of the 1960’s and particularly during the Vietnam War, we saw them closer to the lenses than before and becoming richer in prominence. The Romantic picture of the activist permeated the psyche of TV and radio across Western Europe and North America portraying them as young idealists fighting for the cause of a better world and more often than not putting their lives at risk in the battlefield, serving as human shields and giving their time and resources for those less privileged, whom in many cases they never saw as equals but rather as the infinitely inferior savage in dire need to be protected.
Ideology non-withstanding, many of these men and women made a difference in the world and contributed greatly to the re-establishment of peace and order beyond the national boundaries of armies and even the international boundaries of relief organizations that turned help into a full-fledged profession with hierarchies of career, domain and power intimately associated with the armies and the higher circles of power, domestic or otherwise, when existing.
Unlike the different professions employed in the cause of war or anti-war and in establishment of peace and order, there has never been a clear voice for what a human rights activist is actually ought to do or think even. In our days, after the internet, when the images of armed conflict, repression, violence and strife do not only reach us through the printed press or TV screens but bombard us from much closer, in our mobile phones as we ride in crowded trains, drink cocktails after lunch or sleep at night, we are both more aware and less sensitive to the spectacle of human suffering.
The increasingly advantageous situation of the information age that make every bit of information available for everyone at any time or the day or the night, had graduated in every city of the world a new breed of activists that send letters of members of the parliament, post pictures in their local college boards, print t-shirts with the cause of Nepal or Timor, organize live forums with participants speaking simultaneously from five different hour zones and crowd in front of embassies and international missions.
The era of social media has made this even more dramatic but less straining, for now it is not only that it is not necessary to save money from one’s own pocket or stand in the cold in front of an embassy in a far away capital district, but it is also not necessary to leave the living room where the sights and sounds of war have contacted us first and it is possible to be an activist while listening to our favorite music, with a cozy blanket over our legs and a sleeping hat from childhood days.
Facebook and Twitter have made these phenomena possible. So that the person who shares a few hours of the day, preferably after work, can be an activist for every possible cause and this is not necessarily a bad thing. What is then the purpose of activism for human rights, if any? My criticism to the current wave of online activism is not that it shouldn’t be done but that as long-time activists who were in the field once know so well, activism is a matter of principle more than it is a matter of opinions.
People can become sensitive to distress happening elsewhere, in a part of the world he has probably not visited and never will and with which he bears no historical or emotional attachment whatsoever, accordingly, the graphic and massive nature of media nowadays makes this possible. Passion is the number one enemy of action: Many people, opinionated and passionate as they are about causes, are impaired for political action, and action as such is different in nature from protest and revolution but identical with power; these passionate believers in causes for one people or another are moved by sentiments such as love, love for the world, for peoples and causes, and love as the most worldless of all feelings builds bridges in between private peoples that destroy the public spaces between them and annihilates political action.
People, who are passionate about causes and have opinions, are generally not engaged in action and are not political activists but rather fulfill the positions of priests giving the ailments to a mortally ill nation or people as a whole. They will clench their firsts easily; online and perhaps even in the real world against those many that disagree with their opinions or might as well not care or even bother to locate Bahrain in a map of the world. Activism as a form of political action is something equivalent to power and should never even remotely be confused with violence, because once political action is violent is no longer political or action but violence alone.
According to Hannah Arendt: “The difference between power and violence lies in that: 1. Violence is measurable and calculable and, on the other hand, power is imponderable and incalculable. This is what makes power such a “terrible” force, but it is there precisely where its eminently human character lies. 2. Power always grows in between men, whereas violence can be possessed by one man alone. If “power is seized” power itself is destroyed and only violence is left. 3. From the above follows that violence is always objective; it is identical with the means that it utilizes –forces – whereas power comes to life only through action itself and is constituted by action. It can vanish in any moment, it is pure unmediated action. A modern example of how power helped to destroy violence is Ghandi. He never advocated for an impotence of the Christian kind. He rather thought that the power of the masses in India is the only thing that could bring British violence to an end.”
This power does not belong to mere opinions but to the people that have detected the collapsing structures of power timely enough to replace them with action. An activist for human rights is not necessarily a politician as much as he is not a journalist who blindly obeys the command of spreading information about every possible heinous crime on earth or in that specific part of the world towards which his love is targeted and awaits the human race to agree with him unabatedly at the risk of severing the channels of communication whenever consensus is absent.
It is not about opinions as much as it is about a principle and that principle is not even necessarily the universal demands of equality and fairness and justice that have failed to deliver for most of mankind. It is but a principle of civility in which rather than harboring opinions the person is capable of acting in such a way that violence is not the result of his provocation toward power and therefore he remains committed to empowering peoples rather than furthering the destruction of the already severed channels between them.
An activist who is incapable of acting out within the boundaries of civility, regardless of his personal private thoughts, in times of conflict and war when the altruistic examples of humanity are most needed and occur most naturally between people because of the crowded space of opinion and truth, will be all the less able to commit to civility in times of peace and will continue in the search for strong opinions whitewashed as truth in the name of the weak powers that break easily as the wind turns elsewhere and unavoidably will support outbursts of violence of any kind that will emerge as the consequence of withheld opinions and not principles as revolutionary ideals.
Opinions are fundamental items in the market of truth but they should not be upheld as truths themselves; for it is no surprise that truth and politics have never been the best friends or necessarily partners at all and politics stems from incontrollable actions of men held together rather than from a founding principle.
The world, beyond the comfort of truth seeking in the internet age is bigger than the news. “What is called in news parlance “the world” – “You give us twenty-two minutes, we’ll give you the world,” one radio networks intones several times an hour – is (unlike the world) a very small place, both geographically and thematically, and what is thought worth knowing about it is expected to be transmitted tersely and emphatically. Awareness of the suffering that accumulates in a select number of wars happening elsewhere is something constructed. Principally in the form that is registered by cameras, it flares up, is shared by many people, and fades from view.” (Sontag)
The pursuit of information as truth has replaced the complex process of learning history and human thought, of reflecting behind the shade of images and voices and thus condemning truth as mere verifiable fact and stripping the pursuit of truth from its aspect of compassion and understanding of oneself and others.
Human Rights though indisputably universal today in our minds, have never constituted a fixed or even stable concept, and accordingly, their pursuit and defense are not viable without a guiding principle of civility that overrides opinions for which we may or may not fall – they’re not one another aspect of faith in mankind.
This is not a conservative exhortation to abdicate the labor of human rights and their very important message, but rather it is a reflection about the fact that in today’s world more than ever, being a conscious reader and hearer of the news does not immediately empower us with holier-than-thou vests and battle shields to fight against violence and oppression without concise reflection on the information we receive and why. Human Rights activism is not a popularity contest.
Being a citizen journalist and a human rights activist are very different occupations, because a defender of human rights is a full time job from which there are no possible bank holidays and it is also a process of intervention which is never neutral, for evil can never be condoned but that yet places well-being, safety, security, peace and legality over opinions of himself or others. It is all too very easy to tweet from the comfort of the living room sights and sounds of war, but more difficult is to develop a sense of empathy that is not a mindless addiction to mere images of violence and death without deference to the people behind them. Remember the words of La Rochefoucauld: “We all have the strength to endure the misfortunes of others”.