Our selective empathy leaves many massacres invisible

From Boko Haram to Raif Badawi to Charlie Hebdo, the media influences how much we care
Photo: Glenda Sims

As massive support rallies took place around the world, and an overwhelming number of people replaced their social media profile pictures with the eponymous Je suis Charlie image, many of us struggled to understand why the Western world cares so much when an attack strikes Paris, or New York City, yet we seem unable to muster up the same grief and outrage when horror strikes in other parts of the world.

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Why does the murder of 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo offices elicit so much media coverage, hand wringing, indignation and defiance, yet the slaughter of more than 2,000 Nigerians by Boko Haram insurgents (described by Amnesty International as the “deadliest massacre to date” by the terrorist group) barely manages to drum up a few articles and some small and scattered gatherings?

Some insist it’s because the former involved mostly journalists and political cartoonists and so their murders struck at the very heart of Western democracy and all it symbolizes: the right to free speech and expression.

But that can serve only as a partial explanation, because the day after the Paris attacks, the Libyan branch of ISIL beheaded two Tunisian journalists and the world barely noticed. In fact, according to Al Jazeera America journalist Rafia Zakaria, more than half of 61 journalists killed in 2014 were Muslims. But based on the way Western media has chosen to cover their deaths, we do seem to be eclectic (and yes, hypocritical) with our anger.

“The evident double standard and selective outrage illuminates the hierarchy of privilege in our moral reckoning in response to acts of terrorism. It is a dynamic that becomes visible only when Western journalists are targeted,” writes Zakaria.

What about Raif Badawi, who has been jailed in Saudi Arabia since 2012 on charges of insulting Islam, and sentenced to 10 years and 1,000 lashes, while the Canadian government goes out of its way to negotiate a $15-billion arms deal with the very same country that put him behind bars?

How many journalists have been killed in Latin America, in Syria, in Ukraine? What about Raif Badawi, who has been jailed in Saudi Arabia since 2012 on charges of insulting Islam, and sentenced to 10 years and 1,000 lashes, while the Canadian government goes out of its way to negotiate a $15-billion arms deal with the very same country that put him behind bars? Does he not deserve freedom of expression? Is our government not outraged enough to do something more than offer platitudes? Would there have been more of a national outcry if his name were John Smith and he hailed from Timmins, Ontario? Is he not also Charlie?

Perhaps it’s true then, that some people are “unmournable bodies,” as Nigerian writer Teju Cole wrote in the New Yorker.

Is there a hierarchy when it comes to our human capacity to feel pain and sadness or are we simply suffering from what Susan Moeller, a journalism professor and director of the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda, suggested decades ago was compassion fatigue?

A condition common among individuals that work directly with trauma victims such as nurses, psychologists, and first responders, sufferers of compassion fatigue exhibit hopelessness, cynicism, a constant negative attitude, and eventually a lessened ability to feel empathy.

Moeller asserts in her book Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death that the media’s non-stop coverage of international crises makes us feel overstimulated and bored all at once, and therefore our capacity to feel compassion lessens. If one considers the fact that she introduced this theory in 1999, five years before Facebook and seven before Twitter entered our lives, one can only imagine what the constant barrage of images and gruesome links since then has done to desensitize us further.

“Just as the overuse of antibiotics has made people immune to their benefits, the constant bombardment of disasters, with all their attendant formulaic, sensationalist, Americanized coverage, has made the public deaf to the importuning of news stories and relief agencies,” wrote Moeller.

That outrage, that grief, that knot in the pit of our stomachs? Sure, that’s empathy. But it’s mainly fear.

The impact of the media’s role on how we perceive and feel things should not be underestimated. Editorial deadlines, budget limitations (foreign correspondents, who are entrusted with bringing us first-person accounts and much-needed context, are going the way of the dodo bird these days), and the public’s insatiable interest in certain stories are all factors that come into play when deciding on what to cover and how to cover it.

I understand that proximity plays a role too. For most of us in the West, being rounded up by Nigerian rebels and burned to death is probably not something that keeps us up at night. But a business tower being bombed in a city we live in, or a plane being hijacked, or someone blowing themselves up on a subway we once rode as a tourist? That hits closer to home. That outrage, that grief, that knot in the pit of our stomachs? Sure, that’s empathy. But it’s mainly fear.

So is our selective empathy, as journalist Glenn Greenwald so astutely put it, limited only to places and people we can relate to? Only to those who look like us, talk like us, dress like us, and potentially think like us? For all intents and purposes, could have been us?

Are we unable or unwilling to feel the same kind of empathy for those unlike us? Iranian best-selling author of Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi, calls the type of universal empathy I’m referring to “the shock of recognition.” This occurs when, despite the distance, the differences, and the linguistic, cultural, and religious divides, you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes and deeply feel for their loss as if it were yours.

The stronger our addiction to technology becomes, and the more rapid-fire speed at which stories continue to pour in (particularly from areas that seem hopeless), the more we run the risk of failing to respond with real emotion to anything that is removed from our immediate reality.

Although there may be forces conspiring to make it harder for us to empathize with those far away, we shouldn’t stop trying or demanding the media do its part in making us aware of why we should care.

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