By Conor Godfrey
[Song of the day: This blog is on empathy; more specifically, what elicits it and what doesn’t. Have a listen to this Tiken Jah Fakoly remake of a song you will likely recognize – his version is called “African in Paris.”) For the life of me I cannot find an English translation online, so watch the video unless you speak French (except this rather awful one).]
I have a confession to make. I really, really do not like Nick Kristof’s reporting on Africa.
A few years ago I wrote a piece ridiculing the still common tropes that weasel their way into Western writing about African issues.
This includes stories with one dimensional human characters and three dimensional animals, or articles with such relentlessly negative points of view that all positives are expressed as little points of light in a tunnel of darkness.
The documentary “Reporter” follows Kristof around Africa as he reports on various crises.
Kristof literally (no exaggeration here) walks up to someone in a Congolese village and asks if there is “anyone very sick, maybe someone who lost children…that he could speak to.”
Talk about a selection bias! This drove me nuts.
Imagine if I walked into downtown Anywhere, USA and only spoke with mothers of teenagers that had recently been gunned down in gang violence.
To make matters worse, this mythical me is the most famous journalist reporting on Anywhere, USA, and therefore my thoughts on the health of this city reach policy makers, possible investors, ordinary Americans, and other journalists who then invite me on their syndicated television shows to talk about my horrid and emotional trip to Anywhere.
Professional Africa hands –African and Euro— have been criticizing Kristof for the paternalistic tone of his writing for years.
To his credit, Kristof publicizes their critiques on his blog and attempts (unsuccessfully I think) to address them head on. Read this entry for a recent iteration of the argument.
It goes like this…critics claim that victims in Kristof’s writing are always black and helpless, while the protagonists are often American or European, and “doing” something about the problem.
Kristof responds that he uses that construction to elicit empathy from Western readers who are apt to turn the page if there are no “bridge characters” (Kristof-speak for white people) in this article.
He takes this even farther in his famous op-ed piece Save the Darfur Puppy, (which I actually though was quite clever as a one-off piece – too bad this is his go-to trick).
Apparently, psychological research supports the idea that “bridge characters” and both literal and metaphorical “Darfur Puppies” can build empathy with audiences unfamiliar with the topic of a given article or report.
But I don’t think this type of empathy matters.
That feeling a reader gets after reading a Kristof story about malnutrition in Niger is actually entrenched indifference and superiority masquerading as human connection.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that most Kristof articles painted an accurate picture of life in many African communities (which they do not).
How could middle class America in any way relate/empathize with a severely malnourished mother, or a torture victim, if all these people are to the reader is someone who is malnourished, or someone that has been tortured?
We need to hear about real, complete people, not one dimensional victims.
The brutal truth is that when I read about torture in Syria I feel very little beyond the revulsion conjured up by images of torture.
However, when I read about the excitement of Libyan ex-patriots returning to Libya after decades in exile, or how a young Guinean entrepreneur built a web services firm with nothing, or the difficulty of changing old traditions, even when those traditions are as harmful as genital mutilation, I feel connected to the participants in those stories.
I have felt pride in my community, I have felt the thrill of success in a difficult project, and I understand how hard it is to break ingrained habits.
This is empathy…what Kristof makes you feel is not.