The Suffering of Others


Read the following excerpt from the book Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag:

“Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question is what to do with the feelings that have been aroused [when we witness suffering], the knowledge that has been communicated. If one feels that there is nothing “we” can do—but who is that “we”?—and nothing “they” can do either—and who are “they”?—then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic. And it is not necessarily better to be moved. Sentimentality, notoriously, is entirely compatible with a taste for brutality and worse. (Recall the canonical example of the Auschwitz commandant returning home in the evening, embracing his wife and children, and sitting at the piano to play some Schubert before dinner.) People don’t become inured to what they are shown—if that’s the right way to describe what happens—because of the quantity of images dumped on them. It is passivity that dulls feeling. The states described as apathy, moral or emotional anesthesia, are full of feelings; the feelings are rage and frustration. But if we consider what emotions would be desirable, it seems too simple to elect sympathy…. So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. 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……… Images [of suffering] cannot be more than an invitation to pay attention, to reflect, to learn, to examine the rationalizations for mass suffering offered by established powers…. Who is responsible? Is it excusable? Was it inevitable? Is there some state of affairs which we have accepted up to now that ought to be challenged?”


Susan Sontag’s book explores the ethics of viewing the suffering of others, especially through film and photography. She engages the questions of whether such viewing can be justified because it mobilizes action in the viewer; or cannot be justified because effective action often seems impossible, and thus the viewing becomes voyeuristic.

When we travel into countries and communities in which people suffer the direct and harsh effects of poverty, illness, racism, and unjust governmental policies, some of the same questions can be asked as those Sontag poses in this excerpt.

Open your journal now, and record your reflections on this short piece.  Answer:

  • How do you respond to Sontag’s critique of sympathy?
  • In light of the journey for which you’re preparing with UUCSJ: What might it mean to consider “how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering…”?
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