DAVE SIPPRELLE ’14
On Sunday, Los Angeles Times columnists Rebecca Solnit published a resounding statement on how Western media rhetoric is misrepresenting the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. “Mobs,” “panic,” and “looting” are the keywords to the media’s “language of disaster,” and Solnit argues that Western journalism’s employment of such terms distorts our understanding of the typhoon’s aftermath, vilifying the survivors as lawless thugs and looters. The journalistic rhetoric of disaster has the capacity to focus the narrative on the wrong things. It mischaracterizes disaster zones as hotbeds for anarchy, as opposed to communities afflicted by tragedy, loss, and hunger. These concerns are somewhat merited.
However, is it untrue that the country is devolving into chaos? Putting aside the questionable ethics of focusing the narrative on looting as opposed to the devastated families, a depiction of rice warehouse looting by starving mobs is a rendering of a reality. It is a snapshot of the typhoon’s grave social, civil, and political impact, and how human communities in Yolanda have been driven to radical measures in order to survive. Perhaps the anarchy and the tragedy are not mutually exclusive phenomena, but anarchy is conditioned by the tragic aftermath of natural disaster.
When people are deprived of their basic needs and government institutions are either unresponsive or limited in funding recovery, people will often take drastic measures in order to provide for themselves. Hurricane Katrina and the federal government’s disorganized recovery agenda come to mind. Even in the case of Hurricane Sandy, Jersey Shore convenience stores and private homes were raided. The “language of disaster” does not necessarily manipulate the facts nor does it necessarily mask the tragedy. Moreover, it points to an alarming political reality.
Not only has the government failed to appease survivors and their caloric needs, but Typhoon Haiyan has revealed the Philippine’s ineffective legal-rational authority, and its proclivity for bureaucratic corruption. The state has failed to properly allocate available public resources towards the relief of the affected communities, thus exacerbating the impact of the tragedy. The concern that media rhetoric discourages humanitarian aid seems far-fetched: the UN, international aid organizations, and the foreign governments capable of providing bilateral aid do not base their decisions off headlines of the Associated Press or the Chicago Tribune. However, in light of the recent revelations that government officials are misappropriating foreign aid and pocketing aid funds, the journalist’s narrative should work to clearly convey this.
Thus, the “language of disaster” must reorient itself to terms like “corruption” and “misappropriation” in order to enhance the relief process and promote solutions. Regardless of how the UN handles the business of disaster relief, typhoon survivors are beseeching individual donors (donors that might read the Associated Press or the Chicago Tribune) to give to the Red Cross and other relief agencies as opposed to the list of government bank accounts provided by the Philippines diplomats. Foreign aid that is funneled into these bank accounts is likely to be misappropriated into the pockets of unaccountable government officials and senators. Furthermore, the “language of disaster” should shift to a discussion about disaster preparedness within international organizations and aid agencies, in order to establish pathways to emergency relief. There needs to be an organized and systemic approach in place in the case of climate crisis, so that misguided local bureaucrats do not have the upper hand in the recovery process. The UN climate talks offer a forum for this to take place.
The words of a journalist lack the capacity to articulate the pain of loss and trauma felt by grieving families and the four million citizens that have been displaced from their communities. Nor do words have the ability to effectively heal these wounds. Yet words can raise pragmatic solutions and responses, in hopes of promoting unimpeded relief.