Andrew Denny – Connecting Gourevitch and Sontag

Our perspective determines our response.

The common theme that Gourevitch and Sontag both emphasize in their works is apathy. Why do humans emotionally respond to some images and not others. Why could one image or event emotionally stir up public response, while other we “flip the channel” or turn away from others? Both Gourevitch and Sontag provide insight into this phenomenon of human behavior. In “We Wish to Inform You…” Gourevitch discusses how the perspective or context one operates in determines how one responds to it. Gourevitch presents differing perspectives of the Rwandan Genocide to show how human response can vary. An example of this is how he emphasizes the categorization of what happened in Rwanda by different groups. For example, Dr. Nakti refused to label what happened as genocide. The UN failed to call label this conflict a genocide until December 11, 1946. Additionally, the US was the main nation advocating for removal of UN troops from Rwanda. How could these groups be so apathetic to the reports of what was going on in Rwanda? Gourevitch explains this by explaining that their perspective or conceptual scheme changes how one can emotionally reacts to the horrific reports. Dr. Nakti lived under the assumption/belief that his father was innocent so his perspective allowed him to neglect certain details that one without his conceptual scheme wouldn’t be able to pick up on. This can further be seen when the US decided to remove troops from Rwanda. They did this because from their perspective the situation in Rwanda was similar to the debacle in Somalia in 1992 (failed American military response to poor conditions in Somalia). This shows that apathy is created from perspective. Perspective allows one to detached or connect to an issue. When perspective allows one to detach, apathy takes hold.

Sontag strikes a similar vain about apathy in her discussion of public reaction to graphic images. Throughout the book Sontag discusses what “We” or They” mean when discussing images and events. The last two pages of the book, Sontag asserts that who is the “we” and the “they” determines one’s reaction to an image. If one is not able to relate to the subject of an image they are more likely to be apathetic. For example, in chapter 4 Sontag references a journalistic custom of portraying “colonized -human beings…. like zoo animals.” This custom is prevalent because humans are apathetic to the feelings and thoughts of those who they can cast of as not apart of their “we”. Sontag asserts that people are more apt to be sympathetic when they view the subject as other or apart of the “they”.

These texts are so similar because they both discuss why human’s are given the ability to be sympathetic but can so easily turn this ability off and on.

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