Sometimes discussions in social media feel like the internal conversations of a person with severe multiple-personality disorder trying hard to give equal voice, or at least free rein, to their many voices. And I find I can agree with all or most of those voices; and at the same time disagree.
In a facebook debate over whether or not it’s okay to grieve more for Paris than for the victims of similar events in Beirut or elsewhere, someone wrote, “How much better off could the world be if we were not wired to respond more viscerally to that which is close and familiar to us, or could reprogram ourselves to feel equally for strangers, and places we’ve never been?”
I agree that it would be better if we could feel – deeply feel – for the stories and experiences of utter strangers, people from cities we’ve learned to think of as the places where “those things happen”: the Beiruts and Baghdads and Kabuls and Jerusalems. And I agree that there’s a valid political point to be made – about colonialism, Eurocentrism, and the like – in the fact that many of us don’t.
But I also disagree, because I can’t imagine a world in which we would be wired not to respond more viscerally to that which is close and familiar to us. That’s what makes us human, and it’s what gives us the capacity to empathize; everything else is abstract. I’ll take real (instinctual) empathy over abstract compassion any day. Even if I will advocate the latter as a half-way step toward developing and expanding the former.
Writing in Vox.com, journalist Max Fisher provides a thoughtful reflection on the Paris-Beirut comparison meme. While he is quite right that the media covered the Beirut bombings, the amount of coverage they received is significantly less. I counted 17 New York Times paragraphs starting on page A6 for the Beirut bombings (the article he cites reflecting on whether they were undercovered or not appeared three days later) – and over 6 full pages, including the entirety of page A1, of the Sunday edition devoted to the Paris attacks.
But the point is that the media tried to cover them, and that media, in a competitive media environment, play up what they believe their readers want to hear. So Fisher’s arguments largely stand, with the caveat that the causality has become somewhat circular: the chicken of “what will people read?” drives the egg of “what should we give them?”, and vice versa.
Something else in his piece strikes me as extremely revealing:
“France has received 6,700 Syrian asylum claims”¦ In response, European and other Western leaders have convened repeated international summits”¦ Lebanon currently hosts 1.1 million Syrian refugees“¦ In response, the world has given some aid but has fallen far short of the United Nations’ annual funding requests.”
That western readers – those with the money that could make a difference – are tone-deaf to the non-white world is not news. That there are ways we could make much better decisions about these things should also not be news.
That’s what makes the social and behavioral sciences and the humanities – including studies of how people make sense of global issues and how new media affect those sense-making processes – so important today. We process things the ways our nervous systems like to process things, amplifying certain kinds of threats (such as those posed by people who look different from us, who might be doing deviant things or wanting to move into our communities) and ignoring others (those that seem distant in time and in space). And those with a stake in our processing help that out in ways that benefits their interests.
What can help? Education, for starters. That’s why our educational institutions, instead of being subjected to neoliberal cost-cutting and money-making pressures (as they are, increasingly), ought to be transformed into the active and engaged learning communities that would transform society from the ground up.
As someone who teaches at a public research university that prices many students out of its offerings, or at least keeps them in debt for years afterward, I know how that can seem only a dream. But it’s a dream worth working towards.
In the end, I have felt like citing Ecclesisastes on there being a season for everything. If we grieve for Paris, let us do that with the attention and emotional acuity it deserves. That doesn’t mean we should not have grieved for Beirut, or any other place. But grieving, when it starts, needs its space.
But as soon as we grieve, we render ourselves vulnerable to one pressure or another. So analysis ought to follow soon after.
And if we feel closer to one place than another, it’s a good opportunity to reflect on why that’s the case. I know why I feel for Paris: I’ve been there, have friends there, know and love its history – its revolutions, its artistic and philosophical culture. I would want every city to be a bit like Paris. And I know where my idea of Beirut comes from: when I was growing up, it was synonymous with “divided city,” with bombings, with seemingly senseless loss of life, so it’s not only on my inherited list of cities where “things like that” happen – it defines that list.
But a capacious response to such events calls for extending our analysis to the broader contours and contexts that frame them. In the case of both sets of bombings, that means recognizing that there are ideologies that cannot be accommodated within a pluralistic social body, because they are intended to destroy that pluralism and the respect for difference that must be its foundation. Those ideologies must be met, challenged, defused and neutered. (And before that happens, they must be adequately understood.)
But it also means recognizing that at least some of the grievances that fuel them come not from outside, but from within that same social body. That is why connecting Paris to Beirut is useful and sensible, once the grieving has been given its space. They are connected as points on global vectors, some of which can only be understood through a long and probing historical lens (one that requires conceptual tools of analysis like militarism, colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy, and the like).
No one ever said that the prospect of building a peaceable global civilization will be an easy one. Back in the late Cold War era, there were times when it seemed we couldn’t possibly make it to the year 2000. We (or most of us) did. As we have shifted into an ever more unified world of multiple power centers and egregious resource and wealth imbalances, things have gotten wilder and less predictable.
There’s no going back, because there’s no “there” to go back to. There’s only the way forward – a way that will have to address those imbalances, the desires and struggles they represent, and the ever more precarious ecological frame that encloses them – all at once.
Good luck to that. If there’s an alien civilization that can give us any pointers, we could use them now. Failing with that, the only thing that will carry us through is the belief that it’s possible.
That gives me hope. And it makes me feel even more for the people of Paris, and of Beirut, and of all the other places where it hurts today.