The world -and the U.S. specifically- has been overtaken with grief and empathy for France, which is a beautiful thing. Skyscrapers all over the world were lit up with the colors of the French flag, news stations began around the clock coverage and Facebook introduced a French flag filter. None of these moves of solidarity are worthy of condemnation, but they do, simply by their existence, point out that the U.S. populous is highly selective in the events we choose to rally around. That is not to say that these attacks weren’t brutal and horrifying – they were. But the ISIS bombing in Beirut that killed 43 and wounded 239 the day before the attacks in Paris, as well as the savage assault by al-Shabaab on Garissa University in Kenya -which killed 147 students- were just as brutal and yet, as a nation, we really didn’t seem to care all that much. These events had very little press coverage and have been all but absent from social media (sans a recent surge as of late). There is a selectivity here that has been a common practice for decades, and we need to be aware of our hypocrisy in this realm.
So why is it exactly that our social-empathy meter’s needle has broken off for France, but is stationary for Beirut and Kenya? It’s a complex issue – a portion of it can be boiled down to our innate need to identify and personalize -and a portion, undoubtedly has to do with race and location. Our media -and the public who consumes the media- are hamstrung by a need to have a personal connection with the stories they report on and consume. But we are all human beings, so whether a group is slaughtered in Africa, Lebanon or France, or whether the color their skin is black, brown or white shouldn’t matter – the location of an attack and where the victims helm from should not dictate the amount of media coverage it receives. But it does. It always does, and it seems as though it always will. Nevertheless, we should not be content in our status as complacent lumps, drooling, and limping along with the status quo while patting ourselves on the back for being so compassionate. The love for France is great, but we need to be better than this.
If we are to look into this issue from a mostly surface-level psychological standpoint, our reactions to the attacks in Paris are merely an extension of our self-centered nature and our fears related to self preservation. Our reactions to events like these are not really conscious decisions – they are true, cellular reactions that cannot be falsified. They have been built and neurologically codified over years of experience. But we need to take a good look at our continual practice of selective empathy and at the very least attempt to widen its scope.
American’s are very familiar with Paris, we all know what the Eiffel Tower looks like, and millions of American’s visit the City of Light each year. Conversely, not many of us know a great deal about Kenya or Beirut, but this is no excuse. They are people. Innocent people who lost their lives as the result of horrifying violence. At Garissa University in Kenya, 147 students were brutally murdered. 147 kids who grew up in a third world country and were attempting to gain an education and make a better life for themselves were killed inside their school by terrorists. And in Beirut, two ISIS suicide bombers killed 43 people in a popular shopping district in a very similar attack to the one that happened in Paris the following day. These events are finding some more press and attention now, but that is mostly due to collateral coverage from the attacks in France. Beirut and Kenya did receive some media coverage initially- it wasn’t nearly as much as Paris, but it was some. And the bottom line is the American public did not latch on to those stories. And the reason the public did not latch on to those stories is rather simple. As a populous, we are absolutely horrendous at abstraction. For us to feel something, for our hearts to begin to ache, we need to see ourselves -or at the very least a familiar entity- within the framework. And we do not see ourselves within the happenings of third world countries filled with people who do not look or dress like us. It seems ridiculous, it is ridiculous, but it’s absolutely true. Obviously this does not extend to everyone, it’s a generalization of the American populous.
And speaking as a member of said populous, I have to say, once again, I think we can be better than this.
The overwhelming show of support for France is a wonderful thing. As someone who lived in New York during 9/11 I can personally say that seeing nation’s around the world come together to support your own is a comforting feeling. And we absolutely should be upset about this attack, and we should support France, but we should also support Beirut and Kenya and Syria and Somalia and everywhere else that has been on the receiving end of this particular brand of barbaric violence. It makes sense that the attacks in France hit a nerve here in the U.S. we have a long connection to France, they are a highly developed nation like our own, and we see ourselves in them. Moreover, seeing a massive metropolis fractured by violence immediately brings back memories of 9/11 and our connection to that day clearly plays a roll here as well. And in some ways, I suppose selective empathy is better than no empathy at all, but I still think we’re not where we need to be. We clearly have an immense amount of love and empathy in our hearts, but it seems to take specific occurrences to bring it to the surface. It would be nice to see this outpouring more often.
by Jesse Mechanic
Jesse Mechanic is the Editor-in-chief of The Overgrown.