Today is justifiably a day of euphoria for many Egyptians following the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, and for many people around the world (myself included) who have been following events in Cairo, Alexandria and across Egypt on Twitter, via the continuous coverage of Al-Jazeera English, via the nightly news in many countries (with some conspicious exceptions) and through videos on YouTube.
In the International Herald Tribune today Anand Giridharadas interviews Elie Wiesel, the veteran human rights activist, who comments on how multiple, overlapping new communication technologies facilitate our eyes seeing:
“Because of technology, and because of the progress made in technology, especially in the field of communication, no one has any excuse anymore to say, ‘I don’t know; I didn’t know; I wasn’t aware.”’
However, Wiesel also picks up a central contradiction of contemporary witnessing. It has become ever easier to become a watcher and bystander to others’ struggles. As Anand Giridharadas notes:
“We have seen this before, with Iran, with Chile, with Haiti: legions of global citizens watching a crisis unfold in real time and, equipped with new technology, seeking to do their bit — disseminating links, retweeting pleas for help or offers of it, or simply standing in the stream of hardship chatter and drinking some of it in.”
However the cultural sense of witnessing has always gone beyond the idea of just seeing – it requires an act of empathy, of analyzing and places a duty of action on the person who witnesses:
Mr. Wiesel fears that, even as the technology makes it harder not to know, it chips away at the duty, after knowing, of understanding: of asking why, making sense of things, judging, empathizing — and of committing the tragic events to a deeper kind of memory.
“In one way, what worries me is that there is so much chatter that we forget how to listen,” he said. Today “everybody has something to say,” he added, and perhaps less interest in absorbing tragedy’s lessons. “Before speaking, there is thinking. But today everything goes so fast, so fast.”
Here he is touching on some central challenges that WITNESS has been considering in its ‘Cameras Everywhere’ initiative – issues of authenticity, attention deficit and how we deal with the noisy, ephemeral ‘torrent of images’. It’s not just seeing that matters in a world of globalized images – it’s knowing what’s true, it’s reflecting, it’s understanding, and (going beyond what even Wiesel indicates here) it’s acting. He also reflects on the nature of memory and historical sense when we have so many sources:
“There is no life without memory,” Mr. Wiesel said. “But when it’s too much, when it’s too much, then we no longer know, really, what came first, the event or the memory of the event.”
Another dimension to this question of witnessing at a distance is provided by Ethan Zuckerman (co-founder of Global Voices) in a blog noting the coverage of events in Tunisia and Egypt, but not in Gabon (where protestors have also sought to challenge their government):
“I’m starting to see an uncomfortable pattern in the coverage of people’s protests around the world. Some revolutions are easily understood and reported on – it was easy to predict that the Green Movement’s actions against the Ahmedinejad government in Iran would be enthusiastically received by American and European audiences. A struggle like that of the yellow shirts and red shirts in Thailand is much harder for global audiences to understand, and it’s less obvious which side will experience solidarity from interested audiences in the US and Europe. And revolutions in far-off and little-known nations like Madagascar often fail to register at all, even when profound political changes are afoot.”
Alongside this he highlights the counter-point to Elie Wiesel’s torrent of information, fragmented, hard to authenticate etc., noting that depth and volume of coverage is not uniform:
New media technologies – not just online media, but satellite television, which has been critically important in covering (and perhaps inspiring) protests in Egypt and Tunisia – offer the promise of covering breaking events in much greater depth than in a broadcast world. I’m very grateful for Al Jazeera English’s thorough, ongoing coverage of events in Egypt, and for my friend Andy Carvin’s relentless curation of Twitter, following protests in Tunisia and Egypt. But I worry that these technologies aren’t broadening the set of stories covered internationally – in many cases, we seem to be covering a narrower range of stories than in years past, though in far greater depth.
So Egypt and Tunisia are tweeted, discussed, covered by the news in great depth (and with great passion, and to great effect), but many stories continue under the radar (and Egypt and Tunisia may shortly too fade from the solidarity landscape). It’s certainly one of WITNESS’ motivation to ensure that those human rights stories do also emerge, and find allies, audiences and co-participants (not necessarily at the massive global scale) who will understand and act. Witnessing requires empathy, it requires engagement (now and in the future, when people defending human rights in Egypt and elsewhere will still require our solidarity and attention when #jan25 is not a trending topic), and it involves a moral duty to act.