Understanding Lenses

On Tuesday I wrote about the “Sexy Disaster Effect,” but during the editing process, it came to my attention that portions of my piece could imply several things, which were unintentional, about the residents and countries I was describing. With more thought on the subject, I would like to add additional points to continue the conversation, as well as explain some of the deeper reasons for the implications that I had planned to make.

In the blog, I made it sound as if Haiti and Sudan are both responsible for and incapable of helping themselves out of the various disasters, political upheavals and violence they have experienced over the past several decades. This was by no means my intention, and I fell victim to what has been described to me in academic settings as having the “inappropriate lens” for discussing any given topic, and I think this is actually a subject worthy of its own post.

When I say “lens,” I am referring to the informational filter that everyone uses to examine the world from a very particular perspective. I am a white, middle-class, American male who grew up in suburban towns across the United States with international experience almost exclusively limited to academics. All of these things cause me to view the world in very particular ways, and this is true of everyone. The key is to recognize the existence of these lenses, because only then can you begin to remove them when they inhibit an unbiased and fair assessment of a situation.

So, taking Haiti as an example, I made it sound as if Haiti is dependent on foreign aid to keep it from collapsing completely. This is a severely limiting and oversimplified understanding of the Haitian situation. Many of the political problems that Haiti currently has are the direct result of external influence, going as far back as the successful Haitian Revolution, to the United States’ support of the Papa Doc regime because of its anti-communist stance. Haiti’s history is full of visionary reformers who were hampered by outside forces like the drug trade’s corrupting influence or even state governments’ interference. To imply that they cannot take care of themselves, as I did, is to deny the limiting role the international community has had in Haiti’s lack of development, or the strength of the Haitian people in times of crisis.

Sudan’s story is similar. China, Russia, and the United States have all played lead roles in the development, or lack thereof, of Sudan over the course of its history. Both China and Russia are responsible for supplying the small arms fueling the Darfur conflict and the other outbreaks of violence throughout the state. Again, the idea that Sudan is a barbaric state with no help except through international aid is unfair, and a look at history will show that much of the destabilization there is the result of a longstanding tradition of intervention by the international community.

The moral of the story is that it is natural to have a very particular perspective, but you need to understand that that perspective can lead to a very narrow view of the world, if you aren’t careful. Fully assess the facts in a situation and avoid judgment. Nothing I’ve said in this blog is meant to imply that the foreign aid being sent to Haiti and Sudan are necessarily bad things, because they can be a very useful tool to help a state in trouble help itself, but you need to look at the other side of the story. The United States should not be seen as providing charity, but as actually being in part responsible for at least some of the strife in both Haiti and Sudan, and likewise with many members of the international community. People are strong, and they are capable of helping themselves out of a bad situation. We, and this goes doubly for myself, must be careful not to disempower them with the way we speak about their situations.

Stephen Thompson is a Program and Research intern with the SISGI Group’s Research Division. For more information about the SISGI Group visit www. sisgigroup.org.


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