“You don’t care about the Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria, but you do care about Charlie Hebdo,” some pissed-off Twitter user says. “All this anger over attacks in Paris, but none over children freezing to death in Syria!” another rages.
It’s a familiar pattern, one that bubbles to the surface whenever a terrible event hits the international news and dominates the social media conversation: why do you care about this, but not that? Why is the media intent on promoting one story, and not another? Why do Westerners seem to care so much more when an attack strikes Paris, or London, or NYC, than they care about the Boko Haram slaughter of thousands (or hundreds, or…) in Nigeria’s northeast?
These comments are both utterly predictable and almost entirely useless. However well intentioned they may be, they are fighting a very elemental part of human nature: our biases, our fondness for that which is close to us, easy for us to understand. We crave novelty. We are naturally subjective, tribal beings. We only have so much capacity to care, lest we suffer from the modern ailment of “compassion fatigue.” What’s more, they are grounded in some ignorance of the historical context of the request for More Compassion Over Here Please, and perhaps too, of the privileged state of the complainer to begin with.
The media of every free nation in the world covers the death of a countryman overseas with more concentrated interest than the deaths of those local to the country – and usually extends the favor to foreigners with racial and cultural ties to themselves. This tendency was lampooned in a 1970 Monty Python’s Flying Circus skit in which a serious-looking Michael Palin notes, “No parrots were involved in an accident on the M-1 today…. A spokesman for parrots said he was glad no parrots were involved.”
It’s satire in the finest British tradition, but the “Python” riff on the tribal nature of parrots is also a clear-eyed observation about human nature: if something bad happens to someone who is more like us, we are programmed to be much more concerned about it. For those of us who live comfortable lives in comfortable places, it is far easier to imagine ourselves being shot in the head in our office downtown or blown to pieces on a subway than it is for us to imagine being kidnapped by rebels in a Nigerian forest or succumbing to Ebola in the slums of Liberia.
Nor does this particular brand of parochialism suggest we care equally about all such deaths of those we consider our own. When was the last time the death of an American soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan made international headlines, warranted a segment on the evening news, or trended enormously on Twitter? US soldiers killed in battle in some lonely Central Asian outpost rarely seem to warrant more than a mention in their hometown paper or, at most, a poignant but impersonal wire photo of a flag-draped coffin at a funeral, evoked in service of some larger point about some aspect of the war. If this is the blasé reaction that even our supposedly beloved and venerated soldiers get when they die in battle in pursuit of our agreed-upon, national interests, then something more than mere nativism is going on.
To understand why, we must consider the power of novelty, which even the most woefully stupid marketing or media executive is intimately acquainted with. Tragic as it is, a dramatic and bloody terrorist attack on the refined streets of Paris is more exciting, more unexpected, and even more entertaining than the steady and interminable drumbeat of children dying in the streets of Aleppo or Baghdad. The stage-managed for media death of a Western journalist at the hands of ISIS is more interesting to an American audience – perhaps only dimly aware of the ongoing conflict in Syria and Iraq in the first place – than the brutal death of yet another Syrian cameraman.
Beyond just novelty, to truly garner attention in both the traditional media and on social media, a death or disaster usually must also have a connection to a larger societal concern, especially if it happens overseas. A resurgent ISIS, feeding anxiety over homegrown jihadists, has brought the issue of Islamic terrorism to the forefront of the American consciousness once again. Likewise, freedom of speech rights are seen as under attack by both all sides of the political spectrum: cultural critics such as David Brooks fret over campus activism and micro-aggressions, while the supporters of Edward Snowden worry about the chilling effects of NSA surveillance. We evaluate terrible events overseas through the prism of our own anxieties: are the victims like us and could this terrible thing happen here?
As a kind of calculated equation, with a final value of how much we end up caring for something, these elements: novelty, relatability, and a story’s relationship to our broader cultural milieu seem crass and cruel. Perhaps in a moral and unbiased world, we would be spending just as much time being enraged about Syria, kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls, Ukraine, and the continuing Ebola crisis as we have all been this week about Charlie Hebdo. But what is the alternative to our current imperfect system of choosing what to pay attention to? Not everything can be covered equally, certainly not in an era where foreign correspondents are roughly as endangered as the white rhinoceros. How then do we decide what warrants conversation and coverage, and what doesn’t – beyond dictating just how much time the media must give to any story, which is very much the crux of the Charlie Hebdo argument?
International conflicts and problems are often terrifyingly complex. While raising awareness and drumming up compassion for the suffering can accomplish good things, awareness and compassion by themselves are not nearly enough to solve problems. Going around on Twitter demanding that people care more about some things than other things is yet another form of armchair activism: it makes us feel good and righteous, like we’re doing something, but it rarely actually accomplishes anything concrete.
The Kony 2012 campaign captured the attention of the social media world, but accomplished nothing at all with regards to ending the abuse of child slaves by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa, and wasted a lot of well-intentioned money on splashy adverts and stickers in the process. What do we hope to accomplish if we get people to divert some of their attention from the dead of Charlie Hebdo, and towards the plight of Syria, or Boko Haram? Is there a concrete benefit for that starving Syrian child if a college student on Twitter whose avatar is a picture of his dog decides to give Syria’s plight a hashtag and a pithy little quote?
Complaints about why people in America seem to care more about one international tragedy than another also evince a certain ignorance of history, of just what that request means. In our media saturated and interconnected world, it is easy to forget the demand that people in America or India or Cambodia care deeply about the plight of people in Syria or France or Somalia is a profoundly new one.
The widespread and swift dissemination of international news and tragedy dates only to the mid-nineteenth century with the proliferation of international telegraph communication. Previously, news from overseas had taken months to travel from Asia to Europe and vice versa. When these far-away tragedies finally did hit the news, they were atomized, already out of date. People may have cared about starving millions far away, but it was a very abstract thing, and even the educated elite probably did not feel pressured to make public displays of feeling bad about it. On the whole, most people only worried themselves about distant tragedy when it had some kind of economic impact on them.
Technology has since made prodigious new demands on our reserves of compassion and time. The rise of instantaneous international news 24-hour cable networks, and most recently, social media, has prompted many people to develop empathy for exponentially more humans than they were ever asked to do before, at any time in human history. It has also produced the expectation that a good and educated person should be aware of all the world’s suffering, and be vocal about that awareness and empathy. We are not only bombarded with dozens of new and horrifying stories every day: there is considerable pressure to make it clear that we are aware, we care, and we’re not going to take it sitting down (whatever that may mean).
On the whole, we do a surprisingly good job of this newfound demand for both total awareness and total compassion. But, no, we do not do a perfect job. How could we? Susan D. Moeller’s “Compassion Fatigue” described the issue very well back in 1999, and her discussion of how 24-hour television news coverage of international events contributed to the public’s exhaustion of empathy seems absolutely quaint in the Twitter era. We in the international spectator class may have developed considerable new powers of empathy for people who do not resemble us, but we have yet to figure out how to develop inexhaustible stores of empathy.
Those of us who care about things like Charlie Hebdo versus Boko Haram, those of us who with time enough to read an article like this, constitute a particular and privileged segment of humanity. We who spend our free time and energy shouting at each other on Twitter about how much (or how little) we care about things should also remember that we are among the blessed of the earth for being able to get into Internet fights to begin with.
Susan Sontag, in her “Regarding the Pain of Others,” put it well: “To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism. It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment… It assumes that everyone is a spectator.”
And not everyone is, of course, and this is easy to forget if you live in a urbanized place in a wealthy city and have friends who spend their time glued to social media and to current events. Many people, even those in our wealthy Western countries, have neither the time, the energy, nor the inclination to spend their free time spectating and worrying about misery in foreign countries. Many other people lack any access to an open media and to public forums at all. If you are going to reprimand someone for not adequately caring about something in a certain part of the world, the object of your ire has got to be on Twitter or Facebook or the Internet and somewhat interested in your opinion in the first place – to forget this is to run the risk of dangerously universalizing our comfortable online echo chambers.
So if you’re angry about people on Twitter caring more about Charlie and less about Boko Haram: I understand, but stop and think about what you’re asking. The problem is bigger than merely telling people to give a damn: it is hardwired into our basic psychology. Not only that, the problem of biased compassion about one disaster or killing is a historically new one – and a problem that today, many people around the world still lack the tools to even engage with in the first place.
Someday we might solve or mitigate it. Perhaps we can find a way to direct our compassion in effective ways, and spread it around more evenly. But shouting at people on Twitter for inadequately caring about whatever story has caught your attention is unlikely to be the answer.