human rights, social change

The Paris attacks and a call for more empathy

This weekend, I have spent a lot of time scrolling through my newsfeed, reading about and mourning the horror of the terror attacks in Paris that killed over 120.  My heart goes out to the victims and their families and loved ones, and the French people.  I am deeply saddened and stand in solidarity with France in this moment.

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A poem by Warsan Shire, capturing some of these sentiments more beautifully than I ever could. (H/T to my friend Asiyah for this image)

And yet, in the depth of my heart, I admit that I have found myself thinking:  why has the world paid so much attention to attacks on lives lost in Paris, but so little to lives lost elsewhere in recent months and even days — like the bombing in Beirut just a few days ago in which ISIS killed over 40 people and left over 200 injured or the attack in Baghdad which killed at least 18 and wounded over 40?   Why has the mainstream media reported so heavily on the attacks in Paris, and less so on the recent tragedies in Beirut, Baghdad, and elsewhere in the world — Yemen, Syria, Palestine, Kenya — the list goes on.  Why are many of us, ordinary citizens, taking to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to show our solidarity with the French people – even changing our profile pictures to the colors of the French flag to show support – while often not even being informed of what is happening in other parts of the world, let alone posting about such tragedies? Why did Facebook activate a “safety check” feature for the Paris attacks, but neglect to do so for any of the other attacks that have recently transpired?

To put it bluntly: are we – as a global society – acting on an assumption that certain lives matter more than others? Does the disparity in attention show how little the lives of people of color in the “global south” are valued in comparison to Western lives?  If so, this is deeply problematic. As Paul Farmer has said, “The idea that some lives matter more than others is the root of all that is wrong with this world.”

The truth is that certain tragedies have been getting more airtime than others, and we do need to critically interrogate why.  The world is bleeding in so many places, and particularly for those of us who work on human rights issues across the globe or those who are directly affected, it can be disheartening to see the lack of attention to the hundreds of victims we know are suffering, literally dying for this very lack of attention.  Activists and journalists spend their lives trying to raise this kind of awareness – they meticulously document human rights violations, report on abuses, and try to get policymakers and the public to care.  But even a portion of this show of solidarity rarely comes through for some of the most marginalized groups. It can feel like a losing battle at times.

Many others have begun sharing similar sentiments of anger and frustration via social media as well.  Certainly, we should all be critical and ask these questions — and indeed, question our own reactions to crises like these as well.

But while doing so, we must keep in mind that we cannot “rank” injustice.  We should not be turning this into a game of “oppression olympics.”  While criticizing the way the world pays attention to tragedies in different regions, we should not devalue the lives lost in Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, or elsewhere.  Each life is important, and this tragedy in Paris was horrific and unprecedented.  Many people are genuinely grieving, and they grieve in different ways. It will take some time for those affected and the broader community to understand, process what has happened, and fully grieve.

In this time of grief, is anger really right response?  Is it right to deny someone else’s right to mourn? There is much to be frustrated about, no doubt, but perhaps the core message must be that we do not need less empathy, but more – much more empathy.  We can all show more empathy for tragedies and victims and survivors in our own backyard but also across the world. We can all take moments in future tragedies to seek out information, read what is happening on the ground, understand, share with our networks and take action. We can all do more to highlight on our newsfeeds what is happening not just in our own countries, but also in the most marginalized of communities. We can seek out alternate media and figure out new, different ways to inform ourselves about what the mainstream sources are not always reporting. More empathy paired with action could be crucial in changing the status quo.  And so, let’s call for this change with empathy for all those lives lost, without devaluing a single person’s grief, and with a change in our own behavior and the way we consume and process media.

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