Judith Butler’s most recent lecture was fascinating to watch on Thanksgiving, a national day of (supposed) reflection and gratefulness. She made astute commentary on ethical obligations, ethical solicitation, and how people are moved to action. She asked, are we ethically overwhelmed with sensory images? She referred specifically to photos of a police officer pepper spraying students at UC Davis. Is this photo ethically overwhelming? What does it mean to be ethically overwhelmed?
I agree with Butler that being moved by photos like this (whether ethically or emotionally) can be a positive force that drives people to action. But what does it say about the nature of activism that we need this uncomfortable push towards it, that we have to be “acted upon” by an image or outside force in order to be motivated to create change?
Despite these potential positive effects, being ethically overwhelmed can also be paralyzing and demoralizing. While the now-iconic UC Davis pepper spray photo may inspire some people to support the occupy movement, for others, it represents the continuing legacy of police brutality, specifically in response to social justice movements. I’m thinking specifically of this seminal photograph documenting police brutality during the Civil Rights movement. This photo may have brought racist police actions to light for those who didn’t live it day to day, but for others, it represents an every day experience of oppression. How can we account for the fact that for some, usually the privileged, a photo may be “ethically overwhelming” in a way that awakens them to action, while for others, a photo may be documentation of their lived experience, a mere glimpse into their everyday lives.
Is being ethically overwhelmed really coded language for people of privilege getting a peek at how the other half lives, so to speak? Or, to use the language of the occupy movement, forcing the 1% to see a tiny piece of what being part of the 99% is like?