Indifference to the Suffering of Others


Anthony Judge – TRANSCEND Media Service

Occupying the Moral and Ethical High Ground through Doublespeak


The indifference to the pain and suffering of others is a continuing theme of reflection and comment, recently exemplified by Somalian world music star, K’Naan (On Indifference to Human Suffering, Utne Reader, 3 May 2013).

Most recently this has taken the form of a much publicised comment by Pope Francis (Pope Francis condemns global indifference to suffering, The Guardian, 8 July 2013; Pope Francis condemns global indifference to suffering on visit to Italy’s migrant island of Lampedusa, The Independent, 8 July 2013; Dismantling the globalization of indifference, Sooner Catholic, 18 August 2013). The Pope used his visit to island of Lampedusa to highlight plight of migrants and asylum seekers who die trying to reach Europe. As the Pope notably indicated:

The culture of comfort…makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others…In this globalized world, we have fallen into globalized indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business. (Comfort makes us indifferent to suffering of migrants, Pope says, Catholic News Agency, 8 July 2013)

Disasters anywhere highlight the issue, as noted with respect to Pakistan, for example:

More than 20 million men, women and children are suffering, and one million homes have been carried away by the destructive floodwaters. This is the worst catastrophe Pakistan has seen in 75 years. It is high time to act and to bring aid to the displaced. It is a humanitarian imperative. (Pakistan: 20 Million Suffering under Generalized Indifference, CECI, 20 August 2010).

Now that the “international community” is actively planning to intervene in Syria, the delay in doing so gave rise to relevant comment:

In Syria, more than 40,000 people have been murdered; millions have been forced to flee; countless souls have been psychologically and physically scarred for life; entire villages, towns and farming communities no longer exist; and throngs of desperate, starving children have lost both their parents and their homes. (Anne R. Pierce, Hell in Syria. Indifference in America. Ricochet, 2 January 2013)

Curiously missing from current arguments for intervention in Syria, in response to the “unacceptable” use of chemical weapons (rather than the unacceptability of the massive death toll), has been the lack of reference to previous use of chemical weapons by the US-led Multinational Force in Iraq. A notable instance was that of Fallujah — now giving rise to a high level of birth defects (Hypocrisy and Legacy of Death Linger as US Claims Moral Authority in Syria, Common Dreams, 27 August 2013). Also missing is any reference to the identity of the suppliers of the chemical weapons to Syria (as opposed to attributing blame for their use). There is also no comment on whether the proposed intervention will give rise to a death toll equivalent to that already experienced — as suggested by the case of Iraq.

The following commentary derives from previous concern at the avoidance of due diligence in the analysis of crises and commentary on them (Vigorous Application of Derivative Thinking to Derivative Problems: transcending bewailing, hand-wringing and emotional blackmail, 2013). This concern is most evident in the case of the Pope’s effort to occupy the moral high ground with respect to indifference to suffering, as argued more generally (Is There Never Enough? Religious doublespeak on population and poverty, 2013).

A wide selection of references is given below on “indifference” and on “suffering” separately, as well as on “indifference to suffering” — especially since consideration of “indifference” may imply “suffering”, and consideration of “suffering” may imply “indifference”.

There is clearly no lack of insight on the matter. More pertinent is the tendency simply to deplore the condition, rather than attempting to frame the concern in terms of why so little is effectively done about it, as argued more generally (Recognizing the Psychosocial Boundaries of Remedial Action: constraints on ensuring a safe operating space for humanity, 2009).

There is the curious assumption that “others” will somehow respond appropriately, even though there is little indication that this has proven to be adequate in the past (Responsibility for Global Governance: Who? Where? When? How? Why? Which? What? 2008). The issue is further confused through its association with appeals for “tolerance” — as a means of constraining attitudes and actions which engender suffering. This could be said to encompass a tolerance of indifference to suffering itself.

The approach here is to indicate various “styles” of indifference to suffering — which may well overlap. Later sections focus on the use of religious, legal and political doublespeak as a means of exploiting suffering in a process of emotional and moral blackmail towards questionable ends. Given the crises faced by civilization, and the level of suffering to be expected, the conclusion focuses on the possible nature of a “transcendent” justification for “indifference” to the suffering of others.



This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 2 Sep 2013.

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