The imaginary proximity to the suffering inflicted on others that is granted by images suggests a link between the far-away sufferers—seen close-up on the television screen—and the privileged viewer that is simply untrue, that is yet one more mystification of our real relations to power. So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. To that extent, it can be (for all our good intentions) an impertinent—if not an inappropriate—response. To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may—in ways we might prefer not to imagine—be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others, is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only an initial spark.
Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (pp 102-3)
My response to this book is somewhere between “meh” and “ugh.” Like, some of this is true, yes, and a valuable point to make, but it’s thrown in just like this at the end of a chapter and Sontag never returns to it. She consistently shies away from making anything that feels like a substantive point, and she also keeps saying things that seem important but dissolve when you look at them more closely. Like here: yes, for privileged people it’s easy to feel like sympathy alone makes you a decent person, but that doesn’t mean that sympathy is inherently in conflict with an awareness of privilege. In fact, I’d say that sympathy is a prerequisite, the necessary impetus for an examination of privilege, not something to be “set aside” in favor of logical “reflection” about our implication in systems of oppression.
Elsewhere, she also more or less explicitly makes the “talking about slavery will just make everyone feel bad because we can’t do anything about it anymore” argument. Which, bullshit bullshit BULLSHIT. A thousand times BULLSHIT. Is there somehow no need for that rational “reflection on how [white peoples’] privileges” are “linked to [Black peoples’] suffering” when it comes to the issue of slavery in the US?