What Is the Western Gaze?
By Taylor Marvin
Comics writer and critic Sean T. Collins and artist Colin Panetta have an eleven-panel comic based on Max Fisher’s May Vox explainer “9 questions about Nigeria you were too embarrassed to ask.”* Fisher’s piece was published in response to the mid-April Chibok mass kidnapping by the militant group referred to as Boko Haram (which rose to international prominence in May in part due to the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag) and attempts to answer basic questions about Nigeria and the Boko Haram insurrection.
Vox’s style of ‘explainer journalism,’ which was pioneered by both Vox founder Ezra Klein and its foreign affairs writer Max Fisher, is frequently criticized as simplistic or condescending. As a non-area specialist Fisher’s writing has been criticized by experts as misleading. Worse, Vox’s nominally non-ideological simplification of complex world events is often political, because simplification involves the politicized choice of what to leave out. A clear example of this problematic simplification is Yousef Munayyer’s convincing dissection of Fisher’s May post “40 Maps That Explain the Middle East,” which Munayyer writes presents a biased view of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War or, from Arab perspectives, catastrophic Nakba.
While I am not a comics critic or Nigeria expert, my read of Collins and Panetta’s comic suggests a similar critique. The comic focuses on the first entry in Fisher’s question-and-answer article, superimposing the question “What is Nigeria?” over a hashtagged placecard, Western news show, American currency, oil tanker, US Air Force drone, and bloody concrete room; notably, the images read as increasing in lethality. “What is Nigeria,” in Collins and Panetta’s artistic paraphrasing of Fisher, is a question answered through a Western lens, centered around Western concerns, and reduced to Western cultural, economic, and military power. The final panel — the question “I skipped to the bottom. What happens next?” — brings this view back to Vox and Fisher’s perspective, reducing Nigeria the country to the West’s impingement on its 170 million inhabitants.
Assuming that I am reading Collins and Panetta’s critique correctly, the comic calls to mind a February piece by Sarah Kendzior which characterized coverage of the then-ongoing Maidan protests in Ukraine by BuzzFeed and other outlets as “disaster porn.” Kendzior was writing about the Western view of Ukraine, but her comments are very applicable to the Nigeria coverage Collins and Panetta examine: “Violence never exists in a vacuum, it is only perceived that way—and when you are on the losing end of the perception, you are at risk, as anyone who lives in a place written off as ‘one of those places’ can tell you.”
While not mentioned in her piece, on Twitter Fisher sarcastically commented that Kendzior was demanding that audiences “pass a test” before caring about Ukraine. My response fell somewhere in between Kendzior and Fisher (who was then at the Washington Post). ‘Caring’ about foreign suffering is not a value-neutral act, because concerned voters can drive policy. But it is also true that the vast majority of foreign affairs watchers consume news as an entertainment good; the average BuzzFeed reader or cable news watcher consumes it even more casually. News outlets are expected to cater to this audience, and so does Fisher’s breezy, 101-level explainers produced for an audience only willing to learn as long as learning is centered around them and their morning coffee.
Even to a non-expert like myself there are many problems with Fisher’s Nigeria explainer: it is flattering to audiences who know nothing, is focused on conflict, reduces the country to a north-south religious divide that many experts deny, and tends to cite Western experts and journalists. But I’m not convinced it deserves the critique Collins and Panetta raise. Many of Vox’s readers cannot find Nigeria on a map, and it’s not wrong for Fisher and other explainer journalists to try and answer basic questions about the country when conflict make it relevant to Western readers. And far from reducing Nigeria to dollars, drones, and oil — not that these things are irrelevant; Nigerian government revenue is heavily dependent on oil and US military contributions to the hunt for the kidnapped schoolgirls has included ISR aircraft — Fisher does offer a reasonably broad look at Nigeria’s recent history, social conflicts, and the tangled roots of the Boko Haram insurrection.
All of this may be written through a Western lens for Western audiences, but that is overtly what Fisher aims to do. Fisher’s habit of featuring music from the countries he is profiling may be trivial and arguably a bit condescending, but it also pushes back against the tendency to reduce countries and peoples to only conflicts and hashtags, a tendency the comic appears to criticize.
If a mildly-interested reader wants to learn more about the country the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag, and its arguable Western appropriation, thrust into the news cycle, I’m not sure what Collins and Panetta would prefer. Sure, if you actually want to seriously study Nigeria Vox is not the place to start, but there are many, many people who don’t want to invest hours or a career examining the country but still read the news. How this indifference affects US policy is another question, but I’m not sure Fisher’s writing is the best way to frame it.
Update: Collins has a comment explaining his criticism of Fisher in greater detail, which focuses on Fisher’s tone, lack of empathy, and othering of Nigerians than the Western-centric simplification my piece addresses.