Liberal Education

Bearing Witness: Seeing as a Form of Service

We are on a summer study program. Students studying conflict and reconciliation in South Africa and Northern Ireland are spending the day in Guguletu, a township just outside Cape Town, South Africa. They feel guilty. They feel bad. They feel helpless. They feel that they are gawking at other people’s pain. They’ve spent a very brief time at a health center run out of cargo containers donated by the Canadian government. They’ve also spent a very brief period of time at an elementary school and in the home of a woman who cares for several AIDS orphans. Two weeks later, they are walking through a Belfast neighborhood where signs of sectarian violence are still in evidence. Again, they feel guilty. They feel they should not just watch other people’s pain or troubles. They feel they should do something.

In Guguletu, we did not arrive on a tourist bus with a guide on a microphone explaining the history and legacy of apartheid. Our guide was the pastor of the local church. He didn’t bring us to the health center or the school or the home for AIDS orphans to put us to work. He didn’t ask for our money. He didn’t ask for our pity. He didn’t even earnestly ask for our prayers. He showed us the work his community is doing. In Belfast, we were not on a “Troubles Tour” bus. We were walking with former prisoners, men deeply involved in the rejuvenation of their communities. They did not ask for our help, either.

Students are well acquainted with the basic concept of service learning and community engagement, as some form of service or engagement is often required for them to graduate both high school and college these days. My students are “good” at service learning. They think it is their duty to help those who are less fortunate, to volunteer in the community, to make a difference. Of course, both students and communities benefit enormously from well-run service-learning programs, but I wince when students simply “check off” the service-learning requirement.

It is perhaps more “wince-worthy” when students approach their fellow human beings in a service project as somehow less human or less capable or less intelligent than the bright young college student sent to help—not that students consciously place themselves above the person being helped, but there is a notion that the educated elite are somehow more able to give of resources and expertise to “the Other.” For professors committed to helping students engage in authentic meetings with others, the traditional service-learning models may fall short in shaping our students and the larger society.

In thinking about service in which students do not descend from on high, but rather come alongside, I come back to the students’ reactions in both Guguletu and Belfast.

What is seeing?

Hearing my students articulate their feelings of guilt and helplessness—guilt in “merely” seeing, and helplessness in feeling powerless to effect change—I was gratified that they felt compassion, that they wanted to enact change, and that they did not want to be mere spectators of the troubles of others. I wondered, however, if they weren’t also finding ways to distance themselves from just “being” in the presence of poverty or sickness or violence.

If they could just put on the familiar hat—descending from their place of privilege to dispense their kind services—then they would feel much better, much safer, much more on solid ground. As Susan Sontag notes, “It seems normal for people to fend off thinking about the ordeals of others, even others with whom it would be easy to identify.”1 To simply walk beside the locals and be present for their illnesses, their hardships, their frustrations—well, that was just too uncomfortable. Yet clearly the locals acting as our guides wanted us to witness their work, to nod, to say to them, “we see what you are doing. We see that this work is good. We see you.” When I introduce students to communication research or discuss how to intervene in organizations, I teach them that they must first understand the question being asked before proposing a methodology or an intervention. But even this presumes a question, an asking. Not all organizations are seeking intervention. Not all individuals are asking for help.

This is not to say that we should replace service with diversity tourism or some kind of voyeurism. I do want to suggest, however, that there are advantages to thinking of service learning as more than performing acts of service. At my institution, the label for the general education course that includes a service-learning option is “Competent and Compassionate Action.” Though these can be bifurcated (doing research in the lab is competent action, while serving others would seem to be the compassionate action), ideally, they should go together. A student learns and feels compassion, and has been equipped in basic communication skills, common sense, and specialized training such that intelligent, competent action can be undertaken.

Would we want students simply to feel compassion but never do anything about social injustices? We might find that compassion without action is sterile, but uninformed compassion may lead to sterile or even harmful over-action. Witnessing how others go about solving their own problems, and then coming alongside them in these efforts—whether as a witness, a volunteer, or a donor—may lead to more informed compassion. Furthermore, the persons engaged in helping their own communities are seen and their efforts are validated when others bear witness to their work. And, ultimately, for the student who tends to rely on charitable acts of service as a buffer or a way to avoid engaging in true dialogue with different others, perhaps bearing witness is a fundamental first step.

What works against us here? I think there are two natural inhibitors to bearing witness. First, we do not truly see others. We don’t even problematize the nature of seeing. We assume that life is, that others are. Claire Huang Kinsley, in writing about being both white and Asian, observes that “sometimes when people aren’t perceptive enough to notice something, they take for granted that it isn’t there. People often assume that I’m white (nothing but white). That, I think, is an understandable mistake. What gets to me, though, is if, after finding out that their assumption was wrong, they nevertheless figure that it was inevitable. That anybody in their place would have thought the same thing. That this assumption was entirely a result of the way I look, and nothing to do with the way they see.”2

Second, we have been trained to regard it as impolite to stare, to watch, to make a spectacle of someone else. It is wrong simply to observe an accident without offering to help or make the 911 call. We want to see—as evidenced by the YouTube colonization of the world—but we feel bad for wanting merely to see. So our natural response when confronted with pain or tragedy is either to look away or to do something. We don’t know how to see the pain of others. Sontag says that “sight is effortless; sight requires spatial distance; sight can be turned off (we have lids on our eyes, we do not have doors on our ears). The very qualities that made the ancient Greek philosophers consider sight the most excellent, the noblest of the senses are now associated with a deficit.”3

In non-Western contexts, however, seeing is less suspect. Among the Zulu and Xhosa of northern Natal in South Africa, the most common greeting, equivalent to “hello” in English, is “sawu bona.” It literally means, “I see you.” You might reply in kind, or you might say “sikhona,” which means “I am here.” As Peter Senge explains, “The order is important—until you see me, I do not exist. It’s as if, when you see me, you bring me into existence.”4 This is what Desmond Tutu calls the spirit of Africa, the spirit of ubuntu. In Xhosa, “ubuntu” means “people are people through other people.” In Zulu it means, “one is a person through others.” It resonates through centuries of African communitarian tradition. It speaks of community building, a basic respect for human nature, sharing, empathy, tolerance, the common good, and acts of kindness. It is African humanism.5

At that church in Guguletu, during Sunday worship, a guest speaker asked the congregation (almost entirely black South Africans) to see people with AIDS, to not look past the problem, to truly see their neighbors as people with AIDS. He then asked all the gathered faithful to turn toward one another and to see who was standing near. This moment was incredibly powerful for my students. They wrote of this moment in their journals and in their application statements for graduate programs. It was powerful not because they turned and “saw” someone. It was powerful because the people in the church turned to the students in order to see them. For my students, it was an awe-inspiring moment when they felt seen.

As I think about this notion of seeing, I want to suggest, tentatively, that there may be two kinds of seeing necessary for service: (1) seeing as interpreting, which involves thinking, planning, and learning; and (2) seeing for the sake of others, which involves affirming the humanity and worth of the other, an acknowledgement, a spirit of ubuntu. Academics, and perhaps Americans in general, may be very good at the first kind of seeing—seeing a problem and working to solve it. We are good at action. What shall we do about this problem? How shall we meet this need? Of course we may disagree on appropriate action, but we seem bent on acting, once we have seen.

Seeing for the sake of others, seeing as respecting the personhood of others, seeing as a step in building community with others—this is more challenging. Perhaps we, as well as our students, need to learn how to foster a non-anxious presence. “It is hard to be non-anxious and present. This takes the ultimate in courage—the courage to take responsibility for one’s own anxiety and the courage to fully show up.”6 The second kind of seeing is important because it goes beyond the seeing that inevitably leads to action or service. The first kind of seeing relies on our interpretation, our sense-making, which does not happen outside of language, both to understand as well as to organize. The second kind of seeing is more about the recognition of the embodied human before us.

Derrida argues that bearing witness is not entirely discursive: “it is sometimes silent. It has to involve something of the body which does not have the right of speech.”7 Ironically, Marc Gopin notes that Westerners and inheritors of the Abrahamic faith traditions honor dialogue, words, and text over deeds, actions, and gestures—a potential stumbling block for interfaith dialogue—and urges us to take seriously embodied deeds, gestures, and rituals as critical components of dialogue and peacemaking.8

Bearing witness

So, first we must see others. Once we see on both levels—seeing in order to experience, interpret, and understand as well as seeing the human beings we encounter—then we may “bear witness.” We bear witness to their suffering, to their pain, to their grief—but also to their action as human agents, their triumphs, their ingenuity. Witnessing as in perceiving or registering is not the same as bearing witness. To only see, as Sontag says, is still just watching. We must see and then bear some responsibility for what we have seen. Perhaps this responsibility will lead to an account that can be shared with others, a joining in the enactment of future actions and accounts, or a way of speaking to the cultural and social significance. In any event, bearing witness requires the witness to own a stance in relation to what one has seen. Further, bearing witness may join one to a body composed of both participants and other witnesses. Derrida says that bearing witness (unlike giving proof) “appeals to the act of faith with regard to a speech given under oath, and is therefore itself produced in the space of sworn faith. . . . I swear that I have seen, I have heard, I have touched, I have felt, I have been present.”9

Yes, we want students to feel compassion, to serve others, to enact certain civic virtues. We require service learning and community engagement courses, as well as international travel programs, in order to cultivate these values and rhythms. As important as these efforts are, however, we would do well to help our students truly to see others—to complicate their notions of seeing, to urge them to bear witness, to find creative ways to be non-anxiously present in the face of extreme poverty and pain. How wonderful it would be for a college student to take the hand of the Guguletu pastor, look him in the eye, and say to him, “I see the work you are doing. I see you. I see the child with AIDS. I see the old man dying. I see the pain in this township. I will bear witness to what I have seen and to the work you are doing here.”


1. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Picador, 2004), 99.

2. Claire Huang Kinsley, “Questions People Have Asked Me, Questions I Have Asked Myself,” in Miscegenation Blues: Voices of Mixed Race Women, ed. Carol Camper (Toronto: Sister Vision Press, 1994), 118.

3. Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 118.

4. Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (New York: Doubleday, 2006), 3.

5. Susan Collin Marks, Watching the Wind: Conflict Resolution During South Africa’s Transition to Democracy (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2000) 182–3.

6. Steven J. Geske and Howard R. Hansen, Healing Leadership: Survival Guide for the Enlightened Leader (Clearlake, MN: Healing Leaders, 2011), 148.

7. Jacques Derrida, “A Self-Unsealing Poetic Text” in Revenge of the Aesthetic: The Place of Literature in Theory Today, ed. Michael P. Clark (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2000), 190.

8. Marc Gopin, “The Use of the Word and Its Limits,” in Interfaith Dialogue and Peacebuilding, ed. David R. Smock (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2003), 33–46.

9. Derrida, “A Self-Unsealing,” 188–9.

Deborah Dunn is professor of communication studies at Westmont College.

Previous Issues