See, Feel, and then Act

By Eliana Kaimowitz*


Nowadays, lawyers, journalists, and professional activists are no longer the only ones reporting on human rights violations around the world. A bystander in Sudan or an activist in Syria can use their phones to capture images of violations and/or social protests and share them with the world in a matter of seconds. A recent example of this grassroots reporting is the case of the more than 200 girls abducted in Nigeria by the Islamic militants. Parents joined activists, lawyers, and journalists to create a campaign to raise awareness and create global political pressure through images and reports on social media like Facebook and Twitter.

But what happens when someone across the globe sees an image or video clip or reads a story in the newspaper about human suffering? Do they take some sort of action? This is a very important question for the Global South, where violence and injustice are too often just another part of the landscape. Victims of grave human rights abuses, from Colombia to Sri Lanka, need citizens from around the world to care, to pressure their governments and to protest abuse.

For years, human rights organizations have spent lots of money on campaigns showing the human face of torture, executions, displacement, and illegal detentions, and other human rights violations.  Sometimes these images are highly effective, embarrassing governments and putting pressure on them to act to end the violations. But in other cases, when the general public sees horrible acts depicted in graphic details, people choose to look away, to shut down, to try to ignore what is happening in the world.

Seeing difficult images repeatedly can increase what psychologists call “compassion fatigue” or “desensitization,” all of which are forms of shutting off or turning away to protect oneself from emotional trauma. Professor Bruna Seu’s research led her to conclude that these images of abuse can threaten “the image of ourselves as good people and the idea of our world as orderly and safe.”[i] No one wants to think they are capable of committing such abuses or that they don’t have the moral strength to do something to stop them. Viewing the darker side of humanity is never comforting.

Yet, as Seu notes in her article, “people are simultaneously psychological subjects and moral agents.” Our morality, our sense of justice, can help us overcome the desire to look away and do nothing.  She recommends two ways to encourage people to act:

  1. Change the discourse surrounding human rights. Instead of allowing people to justify their inaction, we should talk about human rights in a way that makes it socially unacceptable for people to shrug their shoulders and turn away. We should encourage a counter-discourse that highlights the stories of people who act morally and are empathetic to the plight of others.
  1. Use friendly and empowering messages more, and shock tactics, including graphic images and gory details of abuse, less. The #BringBackOurGirlscampaign seeking the return of the kidnapped Nigerian girls is a good example of this. The girls face rape and torture, yet the social media campaign is focused on the simple message that we all need to help find the girls and bring them home. The campaign has garnered the support of celebrities and political figures like Michele Obama, who are pledging to help and pressuring the Nigerian government to act.

But as one horrible event fades from the news, it is quickly followed by another. We are left asking ourselves: When I see, read or hear about all these human rights violations, what can I do? New York Times blog writer KJ Dell´Antonia describes the helplessness we feel reading about horrible cases of violations day after day:

Young boys burned alive in Nigeria, gangs rape women in Syrian refugee camps, polio workers killed in Pakistan, and I contemplate – what? Changing my Facebook profile picture in “solidarity”? … Some part of me burns to take action, but the practical impediments to real action are many, and what would “real action” look like for someone like me?

For me, real action means doing something, big or small, to counter injustice and honor the victims.

We should consider the underlying causes of human rights violations and act to address them. While we cannot always ensure justice will prevail in a specific case, there is much that can be done to tug at the roots of injustices. For example, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, writes that in the Nigerian girls’ case: “In the long run, the best way to fight extremism is education, especially for girls.” In a follow up column, Kristof suggests ways to act and honor the girls, like making a donation so a girl in Africa can go to school or supporting an accessible clean water initiative so girls don’t have to drop out of school to carry water for their families.

With current technology and citizen reporters, it is likely that the number of images and stories of human rights abuses we see and read about will only continue to increase. As viewers, we should fight the urge to look away and justify our inaction. As human rights activists we should think about how to frame the message so it carries the hope of justice and calls for action, either to provide relief to the victims or to change underlying conditions for the future.


* Eliana Kaimowitz is a researcher at Dejusticia (the Center for Law, Justice, and Society)

[i]Bruna Irene Seu. ‘Your stomach makes you feel that you don´t want to know anything about it:´ desensitization, defence mechanisms and rhetoric in response to human rights abuses, Journal of Human Rights, Vol. 2, No. 2 (June 2003), 183-196