Susan Sontag (1933-2004): Regarding The Pain of Others

Written on October 9, 2007 by Santiago Iñiguez in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Santiago Iniguez

It is an honour to be invited to participate in this blog, which will be the showcase for many of the intitiatives of the new Department of Humanities here at IE Business School lead by Arantza de Areila.

Susan Sontag (1933-2004): Regarding The Pain of Others

In today’s Western World, most of us are lucky to live distant from
external violence. Although our chances of suffering a violent attack
or an accident may vary, depending on countries, lifestyle or jobs,
they are not comparable to the defencelessness experienced by our
ancestors, centuries ago. The evolution of institutions, the rule of
law and moral progress achieved in our societies make the experience of
external violence an improbable event. However, we can still regularly
see violent phenomena through TV and other media, watching news on
wars, terrorist attacks, murders, natural disasters and similar
horrible events.

In a post I wrote in BizDeansTalk, I referred to Simone de Beauvoir’s splendid novel "Les Belles Images",
where the French café-philosopher and novelist describes a situation
which could be transferable to present days. The protagonist, a
conscientious mother, wonders why her daughter is worried about some
inevitable evils that exist in the world but occur far from home
–hunger, epidemics, natural disasters- and cause devastating effects
among huge numbers of poor people of the third world, although these
problems can not be solved solely by one person (if at all). This
impotence of the single individual to solve a given evil produces a
natural, defensive reaction in many humans. People like "belle images"
–beautiful images- and are not prepared to be constantly exposed to the
image of horror or suffering. The natural reaction of the mother is,
then, to change the TV channel or the subject in order to avoid the
exposure of her beloved daughter to the cruellest aspects of life. The
extreme version of the "belle image" syndrome is just to avoid talking
or showing pictures of some particular disaster. I am sure you identify
the syndrome I am talking about.

Sometimes I hear that managers should avoid being sensitive or
compassionate, since they should take hard decisions that may affect
thousands of people while keeping themselves calm and unaffected at the
same time. Imagine that you have to fire half of your team as a
consequence of a merger or a company downsizing. How could you cope
with the personal tensions derived from such measure without detaching
yourself enough to avoid suffering personally. Indeed, some managers,
and humans in general, develop some sort of defence mechanisms to
protect themselves from mental disruptions in times of crisis.

However, sensitiveness and compassion have room in business
relations as virtues to be practised. The challenge for managers is how
to take hard decisions and at the same time keep their humanity. I can
only think of a way-out in those cases: hard decisions should be
subject to rational scrutiny and managers who adopt them should be
capable of defending them in the public arena through reasonable

Going back to atrocities and how people react to them, this summer I
read Susan Sontag’s “Regarding The Pain of Others”, a forceful essay on
the imagery of warfare, a wake-up call at a time when we are
witnessing, every day, countless attacks on human lives in Darfur, in the Middle
East, in Iraq, in Afghanistan and, unfortunately, in many other places,
more than what headlines can tell. Sontag explains that “the
understanding of war among people who have not experienced war is now
chiefly a product of [war photographers’] images”.

So far as we feel sympathy," Sontag writes, "we feel we are not
accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our
innocence as well as our impotence. To that extent, it can be (for all
our good intentions) an impertinent -if not an inappropriate- response.
To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and
murderous politics for a consideration of how our privileges are
located on the same map as their suffering, and may – in ways that we
prefer not to imagine- be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of
some may imply the destitution of others, is a task for which the
painful, stirring images supply only the initial spark."

Sontag is also realistic about what intellectuals can do about
warfare: “Who believes today that war can be abolished? Noone, not even
pacifists. We hope only (so far in vain) to stop genocide and to bring
to justice those who commit gross violations of the laws of war (for
there are laws of war, to which combatants should be held too), and to
be able to stop specific wars by imposing negotiated alternatives to
armed conflict.”

Let me suggest two steps in the right direction towards the
progressive eradication of war: business and education. They can
enhance our senses and our sensibility.


No comments yet.

Leave a Comment


We use both our own and third-party cookies to enhance our services and to offer you the content that most suits your preferences by analysing your browsing habits. Your continued use of the site means that you accept these cookies. You may change your settings and obtain more information here. Accept