How the world has turned the tsunami rubble into a pulpit

Everybody wants to use the disaster as a platform for their own agenda.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

As the wreckage caused by the Asian tsunami is cleared away, we are able to reflect more clearly not only on the disaster, but on the responses to it.

Three weeks on, it is possible to see how the wasteland created by the tsunami has become a space into which everybody – especially in the West – feels free to project agendas that reflect the existing political moods of our time. The disaster zone is an empty vessel, into which all of the fears and prejudices of contemporary society can be poured. The results reveal much about the state of the world far beyond the devastated coastal regions of the Indian Ocean.

There are now reports of how different religious groups and cults have been moving into the vacuum of the tsunami zone. Everybody from Muslim fundamentalists to evangelical Christians, from the celebrity-endorsed Church of Scientology to the bigger-celebrity-endorsed Kabbalah centre, is reportedly trying to preach their message to the victims and survivors. These religionists have rightly been criticised for trying to leech off the tragedy and turn it to their advantage.

Yet in using the rubble as a pulpit from which to preach their worldview and sing their own praises, these cults are only doing what all of the world’s governments, NGOs and armies of lobbyists, experts and authorities have been doing since the tsunami struck on 26 December. It is worth reminding ourselves of the ‘meanings’ which so many have tried to attach to a senseless act of nature.

It is striking how, as Jennie Bristow observed on spiked last week, a disaster thousands of miles away has been turned into a story that is ‘All About Us’ (see Riding the wave of compassion). The spontaneous outpouring of public compassion and donations for the victims had to be made into a spectacle, and shouted about as an advertisement for how good our society really is. The statement that prime minister Tony Blair made to the House of Commons on 10 January was a typical expression of this trend: boasting about how much Britain was doing, asserting that the money given was ‘the best illustration of the British character’, and even claiming that we had won the ‘admiration’ of stricken Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

This sort of thing has turned a demonstration of human solidarity into an exercise in self-flattery. The authorities in Britain and other states have seized on the disaster over there as an opportunity to reaffirm our moral and united character over here. Such opportunities are rare in our atomised and uncertain societies. That is why Blair talked in such glowing terms about the response to the tsunami being ‘uplifting’. The non-stop reporting and discussion of the tsunami also became a lengthy citizenship lesson in how to behave like a responsible person today. Showing yet more pictures of bloated, purple corpses alongside the disaster fund phone numbers created a moral imperative to join in and show we care, like a huge Red Nose day with real dead bodies. Little wonder that, when surveyed, 85 per cent of British households claimed to have contributed to the fund – far more than the number of contributions actually received.

Next we witnessed the disaster zone being turned into a playing field for a game of competitive compassion, with governments, nations, parties, institutions and public figures vying to show who cared the most. The inevitable lists appeared, revealing who had pledged how much in a sort of league table of humanity. They all pointed the finger at one another – and everybody in Britain pointed theirs at Tony Blair’s government – shouting ‘You’re not doing enough!’. It provided an ugly snapshot of the degree to which politics and public life in the West has become, not a contest of ideas and principles, but an unseemly scramble to see who can pose furthest up the moral high ground. Whether these gestures are an effective response to a real problem matters less than being seen to make them.

What all those competing in the compassion stakes agreed upon was that the fulsome international response to the tsunami showed the strength of our united ‘human community’. Well, yes and no. It is always worth asking how strong and united a community really can be, when it takes a disaster on such a scale to make it act together – and when its leaders feel the need to flatter themselves by advertising that moment of solidarity in such a self-conscious way.

Worse, you did not have to scratch very far beneath the expressions of solidarity to find the powerful contemporary moods of misanthropy and mistrust breaking through. This is no basis on which to bring people together to build the ‘new world’ that many dreamt aloud might come out of the response to the Asian tragedy.

The deep-seated mistrust of human motives has perhaps been most obvious in the panic about alleged child abductions in the disaster zone, which I wrote about last week (see Child abductions and urban legends). There is no evidence of orphans and lost children being abducted by predatory paedophiles, and to date every rumour and unconfirmed report has turned out to be untrue – including the much-reported text message offering Indonesian children, which police believe to be a hoax.

But that has not stopped international agencies from UNICEF downwards working on the assumption that abductions must be taking place, and issuing alarmist warnings that thousands of kids are at risk. The Metropolitan Police in London is setting up a special task force, supported by a long list of government and charitable agencies, to go out to the disaster zone and investigate the abduction industry – even though they admit that there is no hard evidence of such horror stories being true. This is a powerful example of today’s misanthropic prejudice in high places, which always assumes the worst about the human condition and imputes the worst possible motive to other people’s behaviour. Thus local people trying to take care of orphaned and desperate children in the region have often been lumped in with the alleged child abductors, as if the rules of adoption in a disaster zone ought to be the same as they are under a London borough council.

When people are not seen as wicked these days, they are depicted as weak. One theme of the tsunami discussion emphasised not the immediate physical devastation, but the long-lasting psychological damage that it was assumed the disaster would cause among the survivors. The international therapy industry went into overdrive, demanding that an army of counsellors be despatched along with emergency aid. There were worried reports about the ‘shortage of mental health professionals’ in societies such as Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Some of us might think that is the first piece of good news the people there have had.

The assumption that professional trauma counselling must be the right response to a disaster rests less upon hard evidence than upon the therapy industry’s low expectations of human resilience. There is little evidence of such counselling doing much good, and a lot to suggest that it can do considerable harm. By trapping people in a cycle of reliving traumatic experiences, and emphasising their supposed dependency on professional help, post-trauma therapy can prevent many rebuilding their lives and getting back on their own feet. History suggests that people’s response to disaster has often been characterised by resilience rather than vulnerability. Yet today we assume the worst. What has changed? As Frank Furedi has demonstrated on spiked, it is not that people have somehow become weaker or less able to cope, but that in our age of low expectations, vulnerability has come to be seen as a defining characteristic of the human condition (see How we deal with disasters). Nowhere is this displayed more graphically than in the therapy culture’s patronising response to a disaster such as the tsunami.

Responses to the tsunami also brought out the strength of the risk culture that we have often polemicised against on spiked. Many sought to paint this natural phenomenon as some sort of global BSE crisis, with important ‘lessons’ for the way that we should live in the future. There were various attempts to fit the tsunami into the familiar script of blaming human intervention in the environment for supposedly bringing disaster down on our heads. ‘We’ had caused it by destroying the region’s coastal defences in pursuit of tourist gold; ‘we’ had spent money on development instead of investing in a tsunami warming system, and so on.

When I noted as an aside that at least this was one phenomenon that could not be pinned on man-made global warming, several eco-activists replied to demand how I could prove that human activity and emissions weren’t to blame. Islamic fundamentalists who have sought to depict the disaster as God’s revenge for the sins of the tourist regions have been roundly condemned. But those who suggest that it was in some way Nature’s revenge on arrogant and greedy humanity have often been listened to in reverential silence.

The ‘lesson’ they have sought to teach us from their pulpit atop the tsunami devastation, is to be more humble, and to adopt a more precautionary approach to human life and development. Never mind the fact that today’s powerful school of eco-economics, with its doctrine of limits and ‘sustainable development’, has already helped to hold back the developing world. Never mind that this backwardness already leads to millions of deaths through preventable diseases such as malaria and diarrhoea every year, as well as leaving regions such as southern Asia more vulnerable to occasional natural disasters. We are now supposed to lower our (and their) horizons still further, and accept that the tsunami has ‘taught us a lesson’ about the risks of ‘too much’ development, and the futility of trying to impose any degree of human control over the natural world.

Contrary to what many have claimed, however, earthquakes and tidal waves do not change the world. We do. The reactions to the tsunami demonstrate that the biggest barriers to humanity doing so today are not natural, but self-imposed ones. They are to do not with climate change and environmental limits, but with the risk-averse, anti-development, misanthropic and mistrustful atmosphere that hangs over our society. That is why the tsunami has been widely interpreted as a symbol of our powerlessness. To judge by all of these debates about what a senseless natural phenomenon might mean, one would think we were ancient superstitious peoples trying to interpret a sign from the gods, rather than advanced societies with the capacity to look after ourselves.

The terrible earthquake and tsunami in southern Asia did not in themselves ‘prove’ anything, whether about the existence or otherwise of God or the character of humanity. But it seems that the reactions to it have proved the need to fight for a new, forward-looking, human-centred worldview. As well as clearing up the dreadful debris in the disaster zone, it is high time we cleared away all the intellectual, political and moral rubbish of our age that has been thrown up around the world since the tsunami struck.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

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