Me, me, me: Japan, Libya and moral narcissism

This post was written by Owen on March 16, 2011
Posted Under: International

I’ve recently started volunteering one day a week at an overseas aid charity. I’m doing this for a variety of vague reasons, including an interest in working in that sector, a not-inconsiderable need for some relief from the general monotony of my regular job, and some ill-thought-out guff about Making A Difference – plus, of course, the warm glow of moral superiority that comes of telling people that’s how you spend your Tuesdays.

But how did I spend my day yesterday? How, exactly, am I making the world a better place in my own small way? A sizeable couple-of-hours-long chunk was spent fielding calls and emails from people who wanted – and in some cases angrily demanded – to know why we weren’t appealing for donations to help people affected by the Japanese earthquake. The simple reason is that the Japanese government hasn’t called for a big international aid effort, and – for the moment – really doesn’t need the kind of support that the (much poorer) countries which were affected by, say, the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004 were given. I must have patiently explained this thirty or forty times. Most people were satisfied with it, but in some cases it just wasn’t good enough. Couldn’t we see that Bad Things were happening somewhere in the world and Something Must Be Done?

Don’t get me wrong – of course being moved to assist fellow human beings who are suffering is an admirable impulse. But if us reaching for our wallets isn’t actually going to do any good, surely we’d be better keeping our money for a cause that actually needs it? Being moved to offer help is one thing, but if even after being told that your assistance isn’t actually needed you still feel you have to do something, that starts to look less like altruism and more like a self-regarding desire to feel like you’ve Done Your Bit, irrespective of the actual impact your action might have.

Which brings me, neatly(ish), on to Libya. Some – and I emphasise some – of those calling for intervention in Libya to stop Gaddafi crushing the nascent revolution there seem to be motivated by exactly the same kind of moral narcissism as the would-be humanitarians I spent my day deflecting: Gaddafi is doing terrible things, and we can’t stand idly by and let him get away with doing them (though we’ll keep quiet about Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, because hell, how much more expensive do you want petrol to get?) It doesn’t matter how Western intervention might look to people in the Arab world who’ve been at the sharp end of Occidental interference a few too many times over the decades – we have to do something.

Not that the hawks are the only ones who are guilty of this in the Libya debate. An equally standard anti-interventionist line, (in the mouth of the good Professor Chomsky here) is that ‘we’ve got enough blood on our hands’, correctly highlighting the inevitability of civilian casualties at the hands of Western forces if we stick our noses in. But without wishing to be too glib, I can’t help thinking that whose hands the blood is on somewhat pales in importance compared to the issue of minimising how much gets spilled overall. I’m acutely aware that we have a pretty crappy record when it comes to meddling in the Middle East, and that getting involved in Libya has the potential to go badly awry. But whatever the West does or doesn’t decide to do, lots more innocent people are going to die. And that being the case, I don’t really care whether they’re killed by Libyan tank shells or misdirected British and American smart bombs, I care that the casualty list is as short as possible.

I genuinely don’t know where I stand on intervention in Libya. There are a lot of very complex variables to consider when weighing up the pros and cons – the chances of success, what the Transitional Council and the Libyan people actually want, the likelihood of escalation, Arabic and global public opinion, and, perhaps most saliently, the fact that the way things are looking at the moment Gaddafi will probably have regained control of the entire country before the weekend anyway, thus rendering this post and every other on the same topic more of an academic exercise than anything else – but what I’m absolutely sure is of no damn relevance whatsoever is how we feel about it all. It’s not all about us, and we’d do well to remember that.

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Reader Comments


I thought it was a very good article.
(warning, incoherent musings ahead)

But I guess there’s an additional element, which you may have considered, I don’t know – which is that one of the common human responses in the face of highly complex events that we feel are terrible and require action, but we feel are both/either too complicated to understand what is the right course of action or are of too large a scale for us to feel that we can impact on them, is to shift the focus to the things that we can control – ourselves, and then to ask ourselves whether we are righteous men.

Effectively saying to ourselves something like ‘The world seems broken, and I can’t fix it, but if I do something positive, whatever it is, then maybe I’m moving against the direction of travel’

I acknowledge that this is a bit jejune and if it leads to people calling up charities and haranging innocent temporary staff in a counter-productive fashion as a way to expiate this feeling within themselves that’s obviously not the right direction to be moved in – but I’m not sure that this response isn’t fundamentally ‘moral’ in character.

The problem perhaps is not with people who look at terrible events and say, ‘we have to do something’ but those people who say, ‘we have to do something (but any old thing, no matter how unconstructive will do as long as it satisfies my need to percieve myself as doing something)’

Written By Alex on March 16th, 2011 @ 10:40 pm

David Chandler gave a(n alright) paper related to this issue at the SOAS/Goldsmiths Taking Control conference last weekend – check out for podcasts of all the panels and discussions. I don’t want to endorse his view, and I think that he simplifies and amplifies the role of critical and cultural theorists in producing the kind of hand-wringing we’ve seen over the last few weeks… what is it about this topic that makes any assertive statement sound hawkish?

Written By Matt on March 18th, 2011 @ 3:09 pm

Its quite interesting how different things look a couple of days later. The UN decision has forced Gaddafi to call a Cease-Fire and stop killing his own people. Good. Now let them decide for themselves what they want.

Written By Flashing Blade on March 19th, 2011 @ 12:52 am

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