Kristof, Singer, and narratives of comforting familiarity

Periodically, Nicholas Kristof, Peter Singer, and their ilk lurch into my consciousness once again, usually as a result of something one of them has said that has the whole internet aflutter. How wise! How interesting! How germane! I consider going over to read it and then remind myself that men like these usually leave me wanting to smash things when I force myself to consume their opinions, so I try to move on — but I keep a sharp eye on what people are saying about the situation, and who is protesting it. The people criticising their rhetoric, sadly, usually go unheard.

Singer and Kristof might at first glance appear to be not very closely related — save for those aware of their converging views on charity and public intervention — but they’re actually quite similar, and I’m not just speaking to their role of older white man patriarchally informing the world they know best by virtue of their no doubt considerable acumen. Both men gained their social status by virtue of positioning themselves as ethicists and authorities on how to deal with complicated social problems that need to be resolved to make the world a better place. The issues that Singer and Kristof, along with other high profile ethicists, care about are the same kinds of things that I do — animal welfare, rights for women and girls — but their take on them is so radically different on my own that I’m almost shocked and startled by how people who advance harmful rhetoric can become so beloved, while those who have a more person-focused approach that puts humanity and autonomy foremost are ignored.

Singer’s work in the field of animal rights is a bit radical, and some find it discomfiting, turning away from early works that even he has since spurned, saying he’s moved to on matters of ‘more importance.’ However, he freely opined on disability issues until quite recently, openly advocating for the murder of disabled infants on the grounds of utilitarianism — their existence would have a high personal and social cost, he argued — and suggesting that when possible, prenatal diagnoses of disability should earn in termination. He was also an advocate for physician-assisted suicide and depriving disabled people of social services.

His arguments were based on two things: One was cold utility, and the belief that there are limited social resources to go around, so those resources shouldn’t be ‘wasted.’ The other, feeding into the first, was that disabled lives were worth less, and that lives of lesser value should be correspondingly less important. He thought, too, that the quality of life for disabled people must be horrid by virtue of their very disabilities. Disability rights activists, including those with conditions he’d directly namechecked in his rhetoric, fought back quite ferociously — Harriet McBride Johnson took him on in the New York Times in 2003 and I did the same in 2012 at The Guardian. Singer has since insisted that he’s moved on to more interesting subjects, clearly discomfited by the fact that disabled people continue to hold him accountable for his dangerous rhetoric, which continues to be cited in discussions devaluing disability.

Kristof, meanwhile, belongs to the ranks to interventionist Western meddlers who believe that they are best suited to swoop into communities they do not belong to or understand in order to expose their seedy underbelly and then ‘rescue’ people. Time and time again, he writes critically acclaimed features that have people all atwitter, and those people don’t acknowledge the considerable degree of social exploitation involved, the fact that Kristof isn’t working with local organisations acting to resolve social issues, but insisting that he’s got the solution because he’s from outside the community and obviously knows the score.

These stances are nauseatingly persistent, and the adulation for Kristof is such that he has a cushy position at the New York Times and an adoring following who hang on his every move. They consider him one of the foremost ethicists and journalists in the world, working to expose the plight of the suffering and aid the pitiful. Even when the very communities he exploits protest, people aren’t interested in hearing about it.

It’s because both men write with the dominant eye, and in a way that is comfortingly familiar to the reader. They draw upon established social norms and affirm those norms. While people suggest that people like them confront and challenge their readers, the opposite is the case. Their work actually makes people feel more secure in their lives, because it does nothing to shake or invalidate their beliefs. They read the work of Singer and nod in agreement that disabled lives are not worth living, or appreciate his more recent justifications for working on Wall Street because it’s supposed to paradoxically generate more resources for social justice. They like Kristof because they can consume the sideshow freakishness of tragic communities without examining their own complicity or being presented with solutions that involve putting those communities in charge of their own destinies.

Oppression takes many forms, and one of the most sinister is its casual reinforcement in the halls of power. It’s not just that these two men and those who occupy similar positions advance, hold, and justify discriminatory views. They’re viewed as authorities. They take power, they’re invited on speaking tours and to events, they’re keynotes at conferences. Their views become the dominant ones, creating a feedback loop: They shape public narratives and then reinforce them, making them extremely difficult to disrupt, as campaigners have to go up against not just harmful social attitudes, but the extremely powerful people who ensure that those structures remain in place.

Image: Person Place Thing, Princeton Public Library, Flickr