Pity Porn and Social Responsibility

It’s pity porn season, as I am reminded every time I shake open the page of the newspaper[1. Metaphorically speaking, I don’t actually subscribe to the paper edition.], with tragic tales of woe squared on the front page and designed to elicit donations from readers. They never fail to elicit extreme irritation in me as a reader, which I’m pretty sure is not the intended response. I am supposed to look and go ‘oh my, how sad,’ and open my pocketbook for the newspaper’s holiday charity fund, or the organisation they are profiling, because this is my responsibility, as a member of society.

I spend a lot of time here, and elsewhere, writing and thinking about institutional structures and the flaws with overreliance on individual narratives. There was a time when ‘the personal is political’ meant something, but it seems to have been twisted beyond all recognition, and we are repeating the same things people were doing 100 years ago. 150 years ago. In 1890, people were posting charitable appeals in the paper that featured the same kinds of situations, and sometimes, the same kind of language. ‘Think,’ they appealed to readers, ‘of the crippled children.’

The thing about personal narratives is that they can be incredibly powerful. And incredibly important. Stories are told through personal narratives, and people find common ground in them, and they can be immensely affirming for people who feel isolated and alone, who think they are the only ones to have experienced something. They can be a great medium for opening discussion and asking people to think about the realities of social issues. When an article about food insecurity profiles people experiencing hunger, the shape of the article changes, readers are forced to confront real human beings instead of cold statistics, and the story sticks with them.

At the same time, though, this narrative approach can be deeply flawed, because it also allows people to interpret systemic institutional problems as personal issues. The response to these pieces is ‘oh, how sad,’ with no followup. No ‘I wonder what my role in this might be’ and ‘I wonder what I could do to address the underlying social problems that are contributing to this.’ When a person with disabilities, for example, writes about inaccessibility in public locations, the bulk of the responses are about how awful and sad that must be, personally. Or ‘have you tried this?’ ‘did you report it?’ ‘have you talked to…’

Not ‘why are we living in a society that views inaccessibility as a norm?’ People consume the personal narrative, they eat up the pity porn, and they don’t think about what they are consuming, how a story may have been told not for the purpose of garnering hugs or attention or pity, but because the author wanted people to connect some dots. To think about the world around them, to critically evaluate things. People talk about inaccessibility not because they want readers to feel bad, but because they want readers to understand a structural problem and to start noticing it. Because once you’re aware, you start to see all the ‘just one step’ buildings.

Pity porn allows people to escape responsibility for institutional, structural, social problems that are not going to go away. It does not hold people accountable for what they are reading. Not on the fault of the author; many authors in fact structure ample institutional commentary into their work, ask readers to think critically about these issues, but that’s not what readers take away. What people leave with is the ‘sad’ personal story, and then they spend a few days clucking about it and telling their friends—gosh, I had no idea it was so hard for women to breastfeed in public without harassment, that really is sad. And then they forget about it, and move on to the next thing, until they encounter another sad story and the cycle begins again.

It is a performance for public consumption, but more than that, it is used to dissolve all responsibility, to allow people to escape accountability in their own lives. Because pity porn centres attention on the personal, creates a personal problem, creates an imperative to look at individuals, not institutions. People are hungry, yes. This is true. This is a thing, hunger, and I very recently asked readers to contribute to local organisations addressing hunger in their communities. But it is also true that hunger is a symptom of a larger institutional problem.

Hunger occurs because people do not make fair wages, and are burdened with high expenses for health care and other needs. It occurs because we have a dysfunctional food system with pricing all out of whack. It occurs because people are overworked and lack access to resources they could use to access food and ways of cooking it, because people don’t have nutritional education, because people are forced to buy foods with low nutritional value because it’s all they can afford. It occurs because we, institutionally, have created a system where it is profitable to make people live with hunger.

This is not a personal problem, not the fault of people living with food insecurity. But the pity porn narratives on the topic elide these institutional issues, and place the focus squarely on the short term, the here and now, the immediate need. You are supposed to feel sad for the woman who cannot feed her three children, to help buy some food for the holidays, but you are not supposed to turn the page and read the article about, for example, the huge multibillion dollar profits enjoyed by the agriculture industry. You are not supposed to draw the clear line of connection between one thing—hunger, domestic violence, inaccessibility, racism, the myriad social problems that surround us—and another, the institutions that prop that thing up.

There is, of course, a reason to continue advancing personal narratives at the cost of institutional commentary. Because then people don’t have to feel guilty for their contributions to the problem, and don’t have to feel like there’s a concrete action they could be taking beyond feeling sad and maybe sending some money to charity.