A moment of silence

Pausing for remembrance is not a waste of time

A wonderful sandwich I had recently eaten. Wiener Schnitzel! Some cheese.

These were the things that passed through my mind between 4:53 and 4:54 p.m. last Tuesday, during our province-wide minute of silence for the victims of the earthquake in Haiti. I wasn’t proud of myself after that minute, and certainly didn’t consider my wandering mind a model of moral excellence. But when my professor subsequently decided to challenge the efficacy of that moment of silence, I was sympathetic to her cause.

It started by questioning whether a moment of silence would really do anything for the people of Haiti. My professor suggested that perhaps we only really did it so that we would feel better, without actually having to do anything to help. The class came to agree that the minute did nothing more than breed complacency among us.

Upon further reflection, I think this criticism is trivial. The minute of silence makes a unified, expressive statement about the gravity of the problem, while calling for solidarity and collective action. We use them sparingly, so they can draw attention to the most important things of national interest. As far as breeding complacency – I’m unconvinced. We don’t stop caring for veterans because we observe silence on Remembrance Day. Even if a minute of silence were to achieve very little, it’s unclear that people really take it as an absolution of their guilt and responsibility. It’s a minute of silence, not a wafer. But at this point, I think the discussion was nonetheless a fruitful and reasonable one.

Of course, this being a continental philosophy class, the discussion didn’t end there. By the end of the seminar, nearly the entire class had reached an agreement: donations to Haiti made through institutionalized aid organizations were merely a continuation of the “white man’s burden,” a neo-colonialist project of deculpabilization of the West – nothing more than a ploy to feed into our perpetual saviour complex and establish victimhood in the Other. The minute of silence and its accompanying email were yet another attempt by Satan-worshipping Heather Munroe-Blum to poison our minds with thoughtless nationalism and utter contempt for humanity and all that is good.

And it was on this clear January day that the failures of my liberal education became most apparent to me. Applying an antagonistic, Hegelian conception of subject formation, where self is constructed in an antagonistic relation to the Other, is not an appropriate response to a natural disaster claiming hundreds of thousands of lives. While it’s great to critically analyze media motivations and re-examine our actions with sensitivity to post-colonial concerns and our intractable political commitments, it’s far more important just to send help.

Deconstruction is good, but not when there isn’t time, not when its goal is merely critical, and not when it causes people to hesitate when the cost of hesitation is literally paid for by the blood of others. How incredibly self-absorbed to redirect attention toward “How are we portraying ourselves in light of our colonial past?” instead of asking “how can we best achieve concrete help for those dying right now?” Many people donate to make themselves feel better. I think that’s a powerful motivating force and we should exploit it. Is altruism ever really a prerequisite for charity? There are flaws with many aid channels, but those are reasons to reexamine their structures later and not to avoid helping now.

Does criticizing our aid channels and motivations for giving aid make us more intellectually honest? Perhaps. But at what cost?