The pornification of marginalised people in the name of ‘awareness’ has a long and troubling history; it’s considered a legitimate tool by many ‘organisers’ who claim that they want to lift people out of poverty or dangerous circumstances, even as the people objectified by such awareness campaigns protest. The lack of understanding when it comes to pornification is telling, as it reveals some troubling attitudes behind the people who objectify the people they claim to be helping. Not only do the people they’re supposedly advocating for not appreciate their methods, but their approach can actually actively undermine empowerment and independence, trapping people in a state of being forced to beg, and wait, for handouts.
Campaigns relying on objectification are everywhere. The starving African child looks pathetically at the camera while the screen flashes the number o a fundraising hotline. Women in dirty saris stand around a broken pump. A pathetic disabled person sits woefully in an institution. All of these campaigns position individual human beings as figures of tragedy who are supposed to evoke emotions in the viewer; the viewer thus becomes more ‘aware’ and perhaps sends money to a campaign that says it will help people like this. And people walk away, satisfied that their work is done.
Such campaigns basically suggest that the best way to deal with social inequality is to allow someone else to come in and fix it for you. People in need become objects to be helped, rather than individuals, and the objectification keeps them inherently stratified and unable to advocate for themselves, let alone build independent skills. They position outsiders over actual lived experiences, suggesting that the best authority on ‘those people’ is someone who interacts with them, but is not one of them. And sometimes doesn’t even interact with them.
Social welfare programmes structured around imposing help on people do not work as well as programmes where people are provided with tools to help themselves. And that provision of tools starts with an actual conversation and connection in the community to find out what people need, and what they already have. People may not need, for example, breeds of cattle that are not suited to their environment, because they already have a rugged and ideally-suited cattle breed that they would prefer to use. Maybe what they need is help with a breeding programme, or assistance with building cattle sheds, or help setting up an exchange with people who breed the same cattle in another region in order to increase genetic diversity.
This kind of community-based intervention is often eschewed in favour of a voice from on high arriving to inform everyone how they will be helped, and to promote a specific kind of help. That help is often a one-size-fits-all model, and it’s not uncommon for it to include elements that will require long-term maintenance and attention. When communities aren’t suited by the interventions provided, they don’t maintain them, and consequently, they’re right back where they started. Except now they are tagged as difficult and uncooperative because they ‘rejected’ prior assistance, and thus they’re marginalised even further.
Working directly in communities to identify needs also includes evaluations of cultural and emotional needs, which are not universal. Being objectified in ‘awareness campaigns’ is something many people would be opposed to, especially if it didn’t actually lead to any functional change that might help them address specific issues in their communities. There may be particular concerns in some communities and not others that need to be considered when working on a programme to empower them, like underlying social attitudes about women and girls, or racial tensions.
When these campaigns revolve around the Global South, which they often do, they also create a very specific mental image that is hard to dispel; the Global South is full of poor, dirty people living difficult lives who need help from the West.
It is not full of people from diverse backgrounds, it is not full of artists and scientists and doctors and people with varied skillsets, it is not filled with art and culture and history. Media coverage of the Global South heavily stresses the pity porn, with almost no attention to other activities occurring in these regions of the world, and it makes Westerners feel very confident about the objectification campaigns they encounter. It doesn’t occur to them that there may be more to these campaigns than meets the eye, and that perhaps not everyone who lives in the Global South is a hopeless victim of circumstance who needs a helping hand, by which we mean a benevolent dictator in the form of an aid organisation.
It’s telling, too, that these campaigns situate oppression as situational, rather than institutional. They suggest that poor living conditions are simply a way of life for ‘those people’ and that it’s up to ‘us’ to lift them up, to save them, to help them, with our donations of money and unwanted underwear and our sympathetic cooing smiles. These campaigns rarely address the structural inequalities that contribute to ongoing worldwide oppression, challenging the consumer of the tragiporn to think about how the actions of the West create and perpetuate oppression.
They do not ask people to question policies like indefinite detention for immigrants or exploitation of sweatshop workers, for example. People are not asked to make a personal sacrifice like not buying goods produced in heinous conditions by workers who lack adequate protections. They are merely asked to open their wallets to ‘help,’ an action that doesn’t require a fundamental retooling of the way the world works, and a confrontation of the systems that promote justice for some while leaving others behind.
All of this is ultimately disempowering, situating people who experience oppression in circumstantial settings where they need to wait for someone to help them, rather than promoting liberation and equality. This is not about building a better world: it is about maintaining our comfort with the world we have, and concealing our mutual complicity in the systems we use to protect ourselves at all costs, including the lives of others.