Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A Photo of Migrants: Reflection #1 on Perspective-Taking

So already, so much is written in education* and elsewhere about the need for people not only to recognize perspectives, but to take perspectives.  

Photo from Calendar from Malaysia
As local and national citizens, we're urged to walk in the shoes of others, ultimately to achieve a more peaceful, functional community or country that responds respectfully to the needs and aspirations of all citizens. As global citizens, we're also urged to walk in the shoes of others because of our growing understanding of the interconnectedness of the world and our increasing realization that what happens "far away" matters, whether or not we feel the implications of it in our own daily lives this week, this month.

Perhaps that doesn't even need saying on a morning that we're all listening to news about President Obama's visit to Cuba, this morning's terrorist attacks in Brussels, and the latest news of migrants being detained in Greece.

So over the next two weeks, I'll be posting a series of shorter reflections on the following topics:
  • the differences between and relationship of recognizing perspectives and taking perspectives; 
  • the degree to which we're open to taking perspectives (i.e., whether we're more willing to take some perspectives rather than others)
  • the degree to which we're capable of taking perspectives, even if we aspire to do so genuinely;
  • the degree to which we really value taking perspectives (versus feel that we should value taking perspectives); 
  • the "depth" to which we must take perspectives in order for our experience and understanding to be useful;
  • the degree to which taking perspectives has become an end in of itself rather than a means to an end--and the significance of that, if it's the case.   

So back to the situation at the Greek border. On March 15, The Boston Globe published a photograph on page A3 that featured migrants from a Greek refugee camp attempting to ford a swollen river in order to enter Macedonia. Cold, rushing water terrifies me, and the photo featured a baby and several children among the group making the crossing (hopefully making the crossing).

That parents would think that their best, safest course of action was to carry or urge their children across a "fast-moving" river said everything to me about their desperation. The baby being held looks on, interested but no doubt relatively unaware of the stakes and the danger. But the girl in the bright pink jacket is crying--so sad, so terrified, maybe both, I imagine.

I couldn't get that picture out of my mind, I think because I would have been that crying girl in that moment--I know that about me. As I read the newspaper, I kept turning back to the page, and ultimately I saved the picture as some crazy act of caring uselessly about these people, that little girl. I couldn't bear to let her get swallowed up by the flow of the river or the flow of the news that makes everything, even the most profound suffering, rush into the past, slip away from us as quickly as we notice it, to be replaced by the next fleeting image and our fleeting consciousness of it.

As often happens, I recalled some lines of poetry-- this time, from T.S. Eliot's Journey of the Magi: "were we brought all this way for/ Birth or Death?" and "I should be glad of another death." Apt, but big deal.

I didn't help the girl at all, though I took her perspective, and do so every time I look at that picture, which is often. I've sent some money to a charity that helps migrants, but not very much, I admit. I wonder what the photographer, Matt Cardy, hoped I'd do with my experience of looking at the photo. Understand? Feel? Act?

* The Global Competence Framework, clearly and persuasively laid out in Educating for Global Competence: Preparing Our Youth to Engage the World by Veronica Boix-Mansilla and Anthony Jackson, names "Recognize Perspectives" as one of the cultivatable dispositions essential to globally competent students' efforts to "Understand the World through Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Study."
** Cardy, Matt. Perilous Attempt. 2016. Getty Images. The Boston Globe. Vol. 289. Boston: John W. Henry, 2016. A3. Print. No. 75.


  1. You've hit on something I think about all the time in my teaching and reading, though I think about it from the related angle of the feelings of sympathy and empathy. Are these feelings of sympathy for and empathy with characters who represent groups who are not us (whoever "we" are) as worthwhile as I feel instinctively that they are? Are they politically useful, or do they serve as rather a deterrent to real political action because we FEEL that we are doing something JUST by feeling. This last was certainly James Baldwin's view when he critcized Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin in "Everybody's Protest Novel" (1949), saying that sentimentality is "the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mark of cruelty.”

    But as much as he disparaged both sentimentality and protest, Baldwin's own work is often about empathy: in Go Tell It on the Mountain, he took the perspective of his abusive stepfather (among other people) to try to understand where that cruelty came from; in "Sonny's Blues," he shows how really listening to another express his suffering through art (music, in this case) is crucial both to understanding others and to confronting one's own suffering.

    And in teaching literature, I see constantly how the trying on of others' perspectives through fiction in particular--because of its tendency to reproduce in the reader the consciousness of the characters/narrators--spurs important shifts in thinking. That, to me, seems inherently valuable.

    1. Hi, Emily -- I so appreciate your comments.

      Baldwin's definition of sentimentality just stings me: I can think of so many moments when I felt somebody's expression of some kind of feeling for some other person or group was just that: an expression, words on the wind. I wonder if that kind of self-serving sentimentality is an American thing, or if it extends beyond America.

      I'm especially grateful for your last paragraph. Just so good to be reminded of the value of important shifts in thinking!

      Thanks for posting! Now my thinking has some opportunities to shift!