A Measure of Sympathy

After any news-grabbing tragedy, such as what happened in Paris last week, there are two social media responses. The first is an outpouring of sympathy, some tactful and heartfelt and some, frankly, not.

The second wave responds to the iniquities of the latter. Someone inevitably points to the numerous other tragedies, often very recent — tragedy is a near-constant in this world — with a higher death toll but less attention-grabbing circumstances and therefore on which everyone was silent, the implication being that people are hypocrites for caring about the one and not giving a flying fuck about the other.

I would like to suggest there is a difference between caring about everyone and caring about everyone equally. The former is humane, the latter simply inhuman. It’s natural, for example, that I should be moved by my brother’s motorcycle injury more than an acquaintance’s, even where the acquaintance’s was more severe. And we would think someone mentally ill who, passing the site of a lethal accident, jumped from their car and collapsed in tears over the death of a complete stranger. That most of us remain in our cars is not evidence that we don’t give a shit.

Attacks in the industrialized West are going to garner more support and sympathy from Western people than attacks in, say, Africa or even Russia. In fact, I suspect an attack in some place like Bulgaria, which is geographically and culturally intermediate, would see more coverage than Africa but less than nearby Germany.

Allied nations tend to be both culturally similar and operate within the same geopolitical economy. (Hence the need for an alliance.) Suggesting that we should react the same to a tragedy in Uzbekistan as in France is saying we should react the same to a home invasion in rural Wyoming as to one in our hometown.

Yes, it’s certainly true that more people died from influenza today alone than in Paris on Friday, and that the same is true of automobile accidents, heart disease, and a bunch of other nasty things. But those are generally known and understood phenomena. What’s more, they are absent human agency (flu) or result from our conscious lifestyle choices (car accidents).

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to be shocked by deliberate murder in an area of presumed safety, even in cases where there is only a single victim, especially if that victim is both an innocent and physically close to us, such as a child in the apartment building we pass every day on our way to work.

Lastly, I doubt any of us will have the same reaction to our failure to exercise, or when we might have eaten too much, as to the sudden onset of a cold, and yet the cold won’t kill us whereas overeating and lack of exercise will. School shootings and terrorist attacks present a similar face, despite that gun violence is active and ongoing.

HOWEVER, with that said, there is often clearly a bandwagon effect to this stuff, and frankly it’s hard for me to stomach a bunch of hand-wringing over, say, the disappearance of a single newsworthy child, from people who seem completely oblivious to any tragedy that isn’t also popular.

For example, I would be curious to know how many people died in the French retaliatory airstrikes over the weekend. Has anyone even bothered to count?

All these things are tragedies, and they need not affect us equally, but that doesn’t mean our behavior, as the best evidence of our beliefs, isn’t morally problematic. Sometimes it really is. And sometimes we don’t like to hear that. And sometimes the people who say it are assholes using a tragedy to flaunt their presumed superiority.

In the case of Paris, it really is — despite what some people are saying — one more episode in a large pattern of alternating violence that stretches back at least 1200 years. (Or have we already forgotten je suis Charlie?)

I don’t say that to minimize the event at all. Just the opposite in fact.

Until we appreciate the genuine root cause of the problem, we will by necessity ignore actual, often difficult solutions in favor of political and emotional conveniences, and in so doing ensure something like this will absolutely happen again.

And again.

And again.

And again.

And again.

And that to me is an even bigger tragedy, and one we can yet do something about.

Until then, all my best to the French people. This fucking sucks.