Sentimental narratives

In his contribution to the book Humanitarianism and Suffering, historian Thomas Laqueur charts the birth of “the sentimental narrative” and its role in changing hearts and inspiring action. “In the late eighteenth century,” he writes, “the ethical subject was democratized; more and more people came to believe it was their obligation to ameliorate and prevent wrongdoing to others.”

The sentimental narrative Lacquer identifies is a sneaky one. Superficially, it seems humane, a good-hearted response to the impoverished and their plight. But it also objectifies the sufferers it nominally empowers—people with pain to ameliorate, against whom wrongdoings are to be prevented, on whose behalf this compassion is to be invested. However many noble or real or useful things that investment may bring, it also flatters us, by affirming our own righteousness.

That’s from Jina Moore’s essay in the Boston Review on telling stories about Africa as a foreigner. It’s definitely worth a read, as is her follow-up blog post, “Good News from Africa,” (in the sense that the news is well-done, not that the news is always “good”) which highlights several examples of the extraordinary writing she’d like to see more of. And follow @itsjina on Twitter.

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08 2012

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