Poverty Porn: The Re-Exploitation of the Poor and Marginalized

Poverty porn 2 

When it comes to issues of poverty, slavery, malnourishment, pandemics and other such atrocious circumstances, Western culture has grown to a rather unusual state. With the explosion of the middle class (upper and lower), and the spread of suburbia, our degrees of separation from the poor has increased to the point where many of us have never truly encountered a 'poor' person… not a single one. It is here I coin another phrase based on that reality: e-burbia1 — having become so comfortably insulated in the e-burbs, we hardly encounter anyone at all in real time. Not on a deep meaningful level anyway.

So it only stands to reason that when missionaries, aid workers, and other such people who live and work in the 'dregs' of the world come and tell us of the severe malnourishment of children, the buying and selling of people, the slums, the garbage dumps… we want to see. By nature, we are a curious species, and by nature… we demand proof. Upon buying into the proof, we seek to fulfill our God-given mandate & please God by descending upon developing nations and communities, perhaps with some good intentions but rarely with sound long-term desires for relationship and almost always a hunger to feast our eyes on the poorest of the poor.

I call this poverty porn2. Using the poor and downtrodden to shock us out of out lethargy, we gasp and wail at pictures like this:

Poverty porn

Now in terms of shock value, this picture is rather mild. I intended it to be so. Yet who's to say this is mild? Should I have shown this at all? This little girl could be sad in her state, or she could be bubbling with shy excitement showing off her home. The whole "where's the line?" question is rather blurred, and becomes more of a pendulum, swaying back and forth. For some, this picture is totally justified in context of the article. For others, not so. And yet others… depends on the situation.

You see, using the tactic of poverty porn to emotionally jar us into reality re-exploits the human beings living in those circumstances. For the sake of our own breaking down of insular e-burb and suburban life, we snap photos and show all of our friends and family just how bad it really is.

I could have shown pictures of dead children, ribs sticking out like sticks.

I could have shown parents wailing over the death of their baby.

I could have shown men purchasing little girls for sex.

I could have shown many 'worse' things just to prove to you how terrible the world is, and how rich, decadent and separated we are from our fellow human race. At one time, I did just that. This is precisely the method I used, not necessarily to garner empathy for the marginalized, but to express my extreme distrust and disgust at our own consumerism (ignorance, meet arrogance). And the tactic would work too… for a time.

Shock has limited and short-term returns.

You would feel horrible for a little while, maybe even a few months, but rarely do people actually change their lives based on seeing photos or… sadly… travel to poorer countries just to say that stood in those garbage dumps, or brothels, or slums, or shanty towns. Porn tours… is there anything more degrading? Someone bursting into your own home and gasping at how dirty and awful it is?

For truly… it still is someone's home.

Yes, there is a time and place for the truth to be shown. But I don't believe it should be at our own whim and will just to get a rise out of our own hardened hearts. People who have "put skin in the game" as it were, have worked, lived, breathed and shared the hard life that blossoms around the globe have a better sense of how we can present these problems to the rest of the world. These are still people we're talking about… gawking at their poverty for our stimulation abuses their humanity.

Groups like Compassion Canada, who specialize in child sponsorship, take pictures of their children needing help. But they dress them in new clothes, give them a bath, and in other ways help them before taking the pictures we see on TV or on the profiles at Compassion booths. Are they presenting a false front?

No.

They are giving these children a measure of dignity and pride. Instead of focusing on their dire needs, they present the children as children equal to any child of the suburbs… any child of God, for truly the 'burbs are not (and never will be) the definition of fulfilled childhood. 

If you feel the need to see pictures of reality, I would respectfully ask of you that you not just write checks to 'solve the problem' (which it won't entirely), but be prepared to get your hands dirty. If you want to see poverty, be prepared to help end it.

Poverty porn 3

1,2Copyright Erin Thomas, 2010

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