Exploitation on Vacation

On of my favourite scenes in Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle books, a series by no means necessarily socially progressive or always right-on, is one in which the doctor’s sister catches him in one of the unsavoury parts of London while she’s out slumming. There’s a great moment between the two where the doctor’s wearing filthy clothes and seems perfectly at home, and she’s horrified to see her brother so casually inhabiting an environment she views as depraved and lesser.

That scene was my introduction to the concept of slumming, because of course I was a curious reader so I had to go ask my father about it. That conversation turned into further reading on the history of slumming and the way in which Victorians turned outings to the poorest and most deprived parts of their cities into a fun adventure, veiled, of course, as something done for the social good. People who claimed to care about the welfare of the ‘less fortunate’ went slumming to ‘be among them’ and see how ‘they’ lived, emerging from their journeys only to feel refreshed and renewed, confident that they were on the path to righteousness.

It’s not like the Victorians invented slumming. People of higher social classes have been dabbling in the lives of people of lower social classes for centuries, for a wide variety of reasons. They view it as exotic and boundary-breaking (think of star-crossed romance, here), they think they’re benefiting society somehow by bearing witness to suffering, they think they’re helping the people they encounter, they just want to gawk and aren’t ashamed to admit that they’re ‘lowering’ themselves in order to amuse themselves.

But the Victorians definitely elevated slumming as an art form, and their passion for it persisted throughout the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. It’s become an indelible part of our lives, made even easier by the widespread distribution of media to make it accessible. Now, we don’t even need to leave our couches to slum. We can view documentaries, read tragic magazine exposes, flip through photojournalism chronicling the lives of the hungry, the desperate, the huddled masses, whether in our own backyards or far from home. This is sometimes referred to as poverty or development or tragedy porn, referencing the very exploitative and deeply gross way in which this media is framed, turning people into objects for consumption instead of human beings.

There are a lot of problems with these kinds of activities; the exploitation of people is troubling enough, of course, but it’s more disturbing when such media focuses on individual responsibility rather than structural problems. By narrowing things down to the individual human level, it’s possible to put a face on suffering, to turn it concrete rather than abstract, but at the same time, it also personalises it. It’s no longer about the fact that structural problems (war, class inequality, environmental change) are pushing people into desperate living conditions. It’s about the people living in poverty as individuals, and with that comes a hint of a chance for the viewer to escape complicity or blame.

There’s also the romanticisation of poverty that tends to come along with poverty porn; at the same time consumers are being told about how awful it is, there’s something titillating, too. Think of the women in brightly-coloured saris photographed as they gather around the well pump, the men staring out from tin shacks, the breathless views of Appalachia contrasted with dirty, worn clothes draping from the clothing of tired people. There is a twisted strangeness here where poverty and struggle are made artful, beautiful, deliberate, and it’s chilling—especially since many of these images are all people see of these regions.

Thus, people don’t see the parts of India that aren’t made up of women bathing in ditches and men walking barefoot down dusty roads with huge sacks of belongings slung over their shoulders. They don’t see African homes every bit as mundane and boring as many middle class homes in the US, they don’t see the parts of South America that are wealthy and luxurious. This unrelenting message of poverty, misery, and suffering creates an us versus them mentality that underscores the idea that poverty can’t happen to us, because we are not them.

And, of course, there’s the fact that this can be monetised, and this is deeply disturbing. Poverty tourism is alive and well in this era just as it was in that of the Victorians, and people will pay handsomely for tours of impoverished regions, chances to play homeless for a weekend, and other ‘learning opportunities.’ These are, of course, little more than naked grabs for profit poorly hidden by withered fig leaves of altruism, and notably, many of these projects are actually quite unabashed about their intentions.

They don’t indicate whether the money they take in goes to any causes working to alleviate poverty, for example, and how that money is used. They take resources that could be used by people who might need them, including beds in homeless shelters, meals provided to people living with food insecurity, and more. They involve the imposition of gawking visitors upon communities who have enough to struggle with as it is, and these visitors have nothing concrete to bring or offer the community. Nor do they apply their ‘lessons’ in any meaningful way, because they come away from the experience with the message that poverty is awful, not with any information about what causes poverty and how to combat it.

How, then, is this justice? How is this any kind of social service?