Later in her life Martha Gelhorn reflected that when she first became a journalist she was horrified at what she was documenting. When she was young she thought that others would be as well. As a new reporter she thought that her job was to expose these cruelties and injustices. She reasoned that in doing so the world’s people would rise up and put an end to these atrocities. Exposure would lead to indignation would draw out compassion would end cruelty would open the road to the equitable treatment of all people would mean that everyone would be drawn out of abuse and poverty and illness. What she soon discovered was that no one responded like that.
When I was twenty and returning home from development and refugee work in SE Asia I had never heard of Martha Gelhorn.
During the course of my work there I had been viscerally moved. I thought that by getting the word out about both the atrocities and possibilities people would be moved to actually do something about both working alongside these impoverished farmers as well as to give some measure of support and justice to people who had been made refugees as a result of the political decisions made by others on the opposite side of the world.
Boy, like Gelhorn, I could not have been more mistaken. Over the course of the several months that followed my return home I gave a dozen presentations on my work overseas. Initially I had high hopes about what I could accomplish by personally relating these experiences and the conditions of people’s lives there. But what I soon came to discover was that my audiences had only a limited attention span. That if I did not get things out in ten to fifteen minutes of a highly energetic presentation I would lose people. Furthermore my listeners had no tolerance to listen to anything that implied that they and their lifestyles negatively impacted the lives of strangers on the far side of the planet; they could care less. Most of the places that I presented were in churches. I found this lack of response to be distressing.
In fact, the people with whom I had grown up and held the highest standard of living in the world did so based on the exploitation of resources on the other side of the world, destroying the lives of the people who lived there.
In fact, the monstrously incessant military bombing of a region populated by stone aged farmers in order to merely promote the political ideology of people living an easy and affluent life back home made a million people dead or homeless. Their (and my) taxes had gone to perpetuate this.
No one bothered to explain this lack of response to me. I had to figure it all out on my own. And very quickly I came to see that in the end I was only plowing water.