Tuesday questions, Tanzania edition

I like to think of myself as having certain good qualities.  I may not be cool, but perhaps I have other compensatory virtues.

One such thing I strive to be is Well-Informed.  I read news and analysis obsessively, though admittedly (with some relief) less now that the election is over.  (This means I check my usual sites only four or five times a day, rather than several dozen.)  My Twitter feed is jam-packed with political nerdishness.  I know who Taegan Goddard is.  And I listen to a ton of NPR.

Knowing about the world seems to me to be its own reward.  Wouldn’t you want to know as much about life, the universe and everything as you can?

Turns out, no.  Not in my case.

A few weeks back, there was a report during my morning commute about the ivory trade and elephant poaching in Africa.  It is apparently quite a persistent problem, and the governmental agencies charged with protecting vulnerable elephant populations are riddled with corruption and/or ineptitude.

I switched the station.

First of all, the report made me terribly sad.  The idea of an endangered species getting slowly destroyed by human greed and desire for a luxury item is simply heartbreaking.  But beyond that, the report was a reminder of my powerlessness to do anything about it.  Humility and realism demand I accept that even the most dedicated effort on my part is almost certain to fail in making any appreciable difference in the problem.  So it felt pointless to sit there feeling increasingly sad and impotent, and thus I changed the station.

Did I fail in some small but important way?  Do we have a duty to face all truths that present themselves to us, even those about which we can do nothing?  Is willful ignorance ever an acceptable approach to hard reality?  Or are we allowed to turn our eyes away?  Where do we draw the line?  I can preen about being a “high information voter” to my heart’s content, but clearly I have limits to what information I care to take in.  Are these limits just a failure of moral courage, or is there ever a place for them?

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. I steadfastly refuse to engage with art that will emotionally devastate me. No sadness porn, thank you. And I am baffled by those that force themselves to watch such things. I’ve mentioned before a friend of mine who watches, for fun, movies like Leaving Las Vegas, a movie I can’t force myself to endure in any scenario even once.

    Does this count as an answer though?

  2. We must protect ourselves if we are to be good helpers. All of us have only so much energy and ability to handle suffering whether others or our own. There are times when our choice is to look away or to break down. Breaking ourselves doesn’t make ourselves better or stronger. Compassion fatigue is real and can lead good people out of helping professions.

    • As a social worker, I agree. Compassion fatigue is the reason I left my previous job and the reason some people leave my current organization. I hate to lose fabulous coworkers, but I understand.

    • Some find laughter a ready solution, a balm for the worldweary soul.
      Not good and upright and altogether sane folks, of course.

  3. Mrs. Likko asked me once how I handle listening to the news as often as I do, when so much of it is awful. (Wars, death, diseases, disasters, poverty, political idiocy, etc.) My answer was “cognitive dissonance.”

    As for the elephants, there’s an A-rated charity right here in the states that gives the animals a place they can live on their own terms, the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee. They usually take circus performers or retired zoo animals but the charity also works with USDA to shelter animals that had been abused, typically while in performance careers. There’s another charity I’ve heard of in Kenya that finds orphaned elephants and gives them to foster keepers, and then re-integrates them back into herds that inhabit national park lands in Kenya and Tanzania, called the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. It would be an unforgivable shame if something so superficial as the ivory trade ran elephants extinct. There are fine artificial substitutes for ivory. By preserving the elephants, and their habitats, we humans help ourselves even more than we help these magnificent creatures.

    • “Mrs. Likko asked me once how I handle listening to the news as often as I do, when so much of it is awful.”

      As long as your attitude is not “I’m going to diminish right back” (one of my favorite last lines, from Ted Sturgeon’s “And Now the News…”

  4. I think your response is just part of the human condition. We can all help and make positive changes in small ways but only a select few people can perform actions that change the course of history. Even most of these do so by being inspiring to a group of people. All change is collective effort. You might think your own actions are not useful but combined with many others, they are. But yeah some problems seem to be perpetual and that is massively depressing.

    “Ever tried. Ever failed. No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.”-Samuel Beckett

    • Inspiration isn’t the only mover. Sometimes, it is merely seeing the connections… or creating them.
      Collective action can be guided by many things. But few are the men with the wit
      or the wisdom to disemminate propaganda in this evolving electronic age.

  5. I don’t have much to add to the conversation, but as I read this, I though, “Why does he think this is a stupid question?” I scrolled up and saw that it was not a “Stupid Tuesday Question”… just a regular “Tuesday Question”. It is a very thought-provoking one. I wish I had much of an answer.

  6. “Did I fail in some small but important way?”

    well – are you obligated to care about everything, everywhere, at all times?
    (presuming it’s even remotely possible)

  7. Elephant poaching is just wrong. You need to broil that meat.

  8. I might argue that you failed IF you deliberately avoided hearing the message so as to avoid being motivated to take action. Sort of like when people look away to pretend they don’t see something happening so they don’t feel obligated to step in.

    I don’t think that is the case here. As you say, you are aware of what is going on. And there is little, if anything, you could do that would make a difference. You are essentially helpless in the face of a known “problem”* and are opting to take other further emotional baggage.

    * I put problem in scare quotes because I don’t know enough about elephant poaching to say that it is clearly and unequivocally a problem. I am on record as being very soft on the mere notion of animal rights, and I don’t know enough about the local culture to comment on the added value to folks of the practice. It is PROBABLY wrong, and I don’t mean to litigate it here, as it matters not what I think when evaluating your chosen course of action.

  9. There is one issue about which I feel quite strongly, but also makes me quite sad. Consequently, I avoid discussions and stories about it, even ones that would just confirm my view. I won’t write about it anymore, and I won’t even say what it is in this comment. It is just too much of an emotional drain.

    In the future, if there is something I think I can accomplish by becoming active in the issue, then I will.

    I imagine this is similar to how you feel, and I see nothing wrong with it. There is only so much of ourselves that we can give.

  10. I’m in the same boat you are. I don’t see it as a moral failure so much as a lost opportunity for personal betterment — if you don’t allow yourself to turn away, eventually you’ll train yourself to balance your compassion and outrage with equanimity and acceptance. If you learn to keep your balance and deal with the pain rather than turning away, you’ll be better able to evaluate what you can and can’t do to help the situation, without having to fight a defensive response.

    That’s my theory anyway — can’t say as I’ve put it into practice.

  11. I used to listen to NPR all the time in the car to and from work. I’d listen to all of it, except during election season there would come a point of saturation that was useless to me, since I was already getting all that news elsewhere. My daughter usually rides with me, and she just had to be informed, too; that is, I figured she couldn’t understand it.

    There came a day, though, that the radio’s usual reports of a number of “dead in Afghanistan, X of them women and children” seemed too much for me to risk. I’d switch to music, and switch back later. Then, there’d be stories about human trafficking, and although I contribute to organizations that help stop human trafficking, I changed to music to protect my daughter’s innocence. Then, whenever they would say, “The following may be unsuitable for children,” that got switched, too. Eventually, election coverage was most of what NPR discussed that wasn’t off-limits, and I hated election coverage.

    We mostly just listen to music these days. I wonder whether my daughter needs to learn to love music or to worry first. And, what she needs first: Is that what I also need to nurture in myself, even if my conscience might sometimes say otherwise?

  12. I’ve heard a number of education experts argue that we shouldn’t be teaching environmental catastrophe to elementary age schoolchildren because they’re not in a position to do anything about it, so it only serves to make them feel helpless and depressed.

    We’re not fundamentally different as adults. We’re in more of a position to do something about some things, but we’re in no more of a position to do something about all things. No good comes of making yourself feel helpless and depressed.

    • they’re not in a position to do anything about it, so it only serves to make them feel helpless and depressed…No good comes of making yourself feel helpless and depressed.

      Well, per Homer Simpson to Billy Corgan, at least it lowers their expectations to a more manageable level.

      “You know, my kids think you’re the greatest. And thanks to your gloomy music, they’ve finally stopped dreaming of a future I can’t possibly provide.”

  13. Some years back, a study was done on children’s television watching habits. Turns out the scariest, saddest thing kids ever see on television is the local news.

        • Well, it doesn’t have to bleed to lead. A nice family snapshot of a smiling child gone missing makes for a dandy backdrop for the lead story. And white girls’ yearbook pictures. A two bit Puerto Rican crack whore gone missing, see, she doesn’t have a yearbook picture. So no backdrop. And therefore, no story.

          Kids respond to pictures. People’s homes on fire, those are always exciting. Highway wrecks. Oh there’s just no end to it. And when it bleeds, nowadays, kids get to see the gurney being loaded into the ambulance with the mars lights going. Kids like flashing lights. Local colour for you.

  14. Russell,

    I had/have a similar problem when it comes to reports on the Iraq and the Afghanistan wars. They’re immensely important, and I ought to pay attention, but when I heard and hear news reports about which faction is allying with or disallying from which faction, or which city the U.S. army holds and which city it’s lost control of, I either turn the channel or just do something else until the story is over.

  15. I went through a little phase where I wanted to save some of my friends who, let’s say, needed saving.

    I failed. Not catastrophically or anything, but I was there one day saying “all of my hard work, my time, my emotional resources… were for nothing. Nothing at all.”

    Took a lot of wind out of my sails when it came to my thoughts regarding my odds when it came to anything more ambitious than staying out of trouble. I can’t save my friends whom I love and have a direct hand in nudging them toward the good and away from the bad.

  16. I do the same thing and have the same questions. It would appear that the guilt I feel for changing the station is easier to process than feeling helpless.

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