by AHLAM CHEMLALI
“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” ~ George Orwell, Animal Farm
PEOPLE GET killed every day. People get tortured, beaten and raped. People die every day. There are levels and layers to pain, to suffering and to hardship. We should be living in constant grief and despair, if all human suffering was equally felt. But why is it that we react so differently, to pain, suffering and death depending on whom the victims were and where it happened?
The recent heinous attacks in Paris somehow highlighted this selective grief and outrage. Just a day before, the biggest terror attack in Lebanon for 25 years took place. 41 people were killed in 2 suicide bombings on November 12, the day before the Paris attacks.
After the Paris attacks, the world was in shock. Social media exploded with French flags and world leaders and head of states made special media appearances in support of France. In the wake of these horrific acts of terrorism, the people of Lebanon found themselves asking: Where’s our flag? Where’s our Facebook safety check? Where’s our solidarity?
This was not the first time. Many commentators have spoken out before about the discrepancy in international responses, citing racism and Western bias. But where does this bias come from? Psychology can shed some light on how we can display compassion for one global crisis, and barely notice another. Emma Seppälä, a Stanford psychologist explains, this “empathy gap” occurs because it’s natural for us to feel more compassion for disasters affecting people and places we feel similar to or familiar with, and for situations and victims we know more details about.
Another factor in the muted international response to Beirut (Baghdad and the list goes on) is what psychologist David Ropeik refers to as “statistical numbness,” referring to our tendency to care more about the problems of an individual than the problems of many nameless people. Research has found, for example, that people would rather donate $11 to save one child than $5 to save eight.
It seems like we’ve come to view violent conflicts as an ordinary occurrence in the Middle East, and are desensitised to them — never mind the fact that the bombings in Beirut represented the deadliest terrorist attack in the capital since the civil war ended in 1990.
According to Ropeik, “One death will always move us more than one million. This ‘fundamental deficiency in our humanity’ is an inescapable part of the human animal.”
This also explains why many people can care so much about Paris while remaining relatively disinterested in the staggering human toll of the Syrian refugee crisis. Meanwhile, Israeli forces shot over a hundred Palestinians during West Bank and Gaza demonstrations the same day Paris was attacked. According to Ma’an, Israeli forces “Used rubber-coated steel bullets and 0.22 caliber bullets against the main instigators” after demonstrators in the occupied Palestinian territory and inside the neighbouring Gaza Strip refused to halt. The news is nowhere on the mainstream or social media. Aren’t Palestinians counted as humans?
Another example is Burundi, a small country in Africa’s Great Lakes region, which is in the midst of some seriously dangerous violence. Since April, more than 240 people have been killed; according to a letter written by concerned NGOs, “Bodies [are] dumped on the streets on an almost nightly basis.” And things could get much, much worse. Adama Dieng, the UN’s special adviser on the prevention of genocide, said that the government’s rhetoric is “very similar to language used before and during the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda.”
But we don’t hear about Burundi. Not in the mainstream media at least. You have to be interested in African affairs or conflicts to know about the situation in Burundi.
So how do we explain our identification with French suffering and our apparent indifference to the suffering of people we perceive as different, Lebanese, African, Muslim…Or just brown people?
Are we just genetically and psychologically dispositioned to selectivity and therefore we should just accept as a given that everyone has bias about which acts of violence and tragedy move us, and which ones we let pass by? There is robust neuroscientific research into how this works in the human brain, and how poor a job we do at weighting suffering and tragedy.
On the other hand shouldn’t people be permitted to grieve, and seek redress for specific violence and suffer without being redirected or corrected? Some say it simply isn’t possible to treat every individual tragedy and moment of suffering with objective or equal consideration.
Or are such arguments just an easy excuse for avoiding discussing the real underlying structures and salient asymmetries in power and privilege which govern these responses?
It is important to point out the ethnocentric nature of the media. Coverage of Western atrocities is disproportionate, inadequate and unequal. It is important to point out the blatant hypocrisy. This is about inherent racism and the fact we value the lives of Westerners over those we find less relatable. Everyday people are victims of violence and terror. Nobody seems to change their profile picture to the flags of Syria, Iraq and Nigeria etc. None of the top ten countries suffering deaths from terrorism are Western countries. Why don’t we care about brown or black people who often live in poverty caused directly by Western intervention and illegal wars? Why don’t we grieve for the mother and child killed in an indiscriminate drone attack?
The fact is that we live in a bubble. The bubble being the ‘Western world’. We’ve lived our whole lives in this bubble in which violence is always declining and foreign-policy issues and conflicts were faraway and theoretical. The deaths in Paris represent a brief penetration of this bubble that surrounds us and makes our lives safe and secure. This bubble-rupture forces us to accept that this bubble is an illusion. And this requires Western governments to take responsibility for the violence they displace onto other people.
Nevertheless, humanity has become a highly selective concept in this day and age.
AHLAM CHEMLALI is a Programme Manager at DIGNITY – Danish Institute Against Torture in Copenhagen, Denmark. She holds a BSc. degree in Medical Science with specialization in Forensic Pathology and a MSc. degree in Health Science with specialization in Torture and Trauma. Her dissertation was on victims of violence and torture in post-conflict Libya with field work in Benghazi. She is a part of multiple international research programmes and has subsequently conducted research activities and field mission in several low-income countries and post-conflict settings, across Sub-Saharan Africa, the MENA region and South Asia.