Immediate Emotional Reactions

BeirutA friend of mine shared his Facebook meme this morning. it is a well-written appeal for a wider sphere of compassion penned by Karuna E. Parikh who has a personal connection to Beiruit.

I would like to talk about my subjective emotional response to this appearing in my feed this morning.

I lived in France, just outside Paris, as an exchange student when I was 16, which is a foundational period in life. I consider my French family to be part of my family in a real sense. So Paris is not an abstraction for me. Last night as I watched what was transpiring in Paris, I remembered the messages of support and concern from my French family that came in following the attacks of September 11 and I felt that it was appropriate to express a similar solidarity. I posted a one line status update in French expressing condolences and I changed my Facebook picture to the French flag.

I agree with Parikh that my fellow Americans can be myopic. We have, for example, a “special relationship” with England because of our common language, but we often forget the historic contributions the French made to our nation. We forget that there were 4,000 French troops and 24 French ships at the Battle of Yorktown to George Washington’s force of just 2,500 under-equipped men. Whenever French politicians fail to support a U.S. mission someone is sure to say that they owe us because we supported them in World War II, entirely forgetting that we were only returning the favor for their support of our nation’s existence in the first place. Our founding fathers were heavily influenced by French philosophers when drafting the constitution.

We do not share this history with other nations. I grieve and mourn for all people who suffer anywhere in the world. I agree that the real enemy of peace is people who want power through violence. In this the victims of a shopping mall shooting in an American suburb are linked to the victims of attacks in the Central African Republic. And so I mourn for the victims of violence. I can imagine a better world where people are not divided and seeking power.

But my grief for the people of  the Central African Republic is more abstract than my grief for people in France, whose history is intertwined with ours, whose way of living resembles our own, we can see ourselves in them, and these attacks were a message “to the west,” to our family of nations.

I am saddened when someone in my city dies. I am more saddened when someone in my neighborhood dies. I actively grieve and mourn when a friend dies. And when a member of my family dies, a part of me dies with him. How would you feel, then, if someone told you your mourning for your friend was misplaced because you were not equally mourning for everyone who had died that day in a similar fashion?

I refuse to feel ashamed or to accept that it is misplaced to post the French flag. I understand the fear of nationalism, which the op ed by Clair Bernish I linked to above expressed. I am one who also worries when there is too much flag waving. But I remember how different it felt to see the flag after the attacks of September 11. Do you remember? In that moment, the flag did not mean “America #1.” it meant we are still here. We have not been destroyed by this. And when my friends are hurt, I stand with them in that feeling.

So no, Ms. Bernish. I do not agree that I should “shake that flag from your social media profile; and your home; and your thoughts. Because as long as you wear just one flag, your attempt to stand with victims of terror is a most embarrassingly hollow solidarity, indeed.”

I am not embarrassed.

I think I understand on some level what Parikh feels when watching the news (or more accurately, I think, watching hashtags trend on twitter) when the amount of attention given to a story is determined by who news producers think “we” are as Americans; when they make decisions about what parts of the world are relevant to “us” and what tragedies, therefore, deserve wall-to-wall coverage and which should be wrapped up quickly to get to important matters like the color of Sarbucks coffee cups. I would like our television news to have a broader international scope and to be less inwardly focused.

(If you get your news from the internet, which most younger people do these days, you have the option to follow the news from all of the nations you like. There are news feeds in English from all parts of the world. The fact is, most of us don’t. We blame “the media” anyway for our own apathy.)

My partner is Russian, and therefore Russian news is always interesting to me. Parikh wrote on her Intagram “I understand Paris is a beloved and familiar space for a lot of people, but it troubled me that Beirut, a city my father grew up in, had received so little attention after the horrific bombings two days earlier. It also troubled me that Baghdad, a place I have absolutely no connection with, received even less attention after the senseless bombing took place there last week. Worst of all, I found the understanding of the refugee crisis skewed and simplistic.”

One of the most horrific terrorist attacks that I can recall was the school siege in Beslan, Russia.  It happened on the first day of school, usually a day of celebration. More than 700 children, elementary school age, were held hostage for three days and in the end 186 children were murdered. it was one of the most horrifying and inhuman things I could imagine, and because of my connection to Russia, I had a strong emotional reaction to it.  Our news did cover it, but not with the wall-to-wall treatment like that devoted to Paris. Much of the commentary on the politics and culture of the region seemed detached and overly simplistic.  For most Americans, however, the Russians are “them.” They are not “us” the way Western Europe is. We try to understand Russia with a view towards abstract geo-political consequences. So I wondered, why didn’t they give more attention to Beslan? If these were British children there would be no end to our grieving and outrage. I get it. I really do.

It is a scientific truth that human beings feel more empathy for those who they perceive to be part of their social group. We are not gods, our brains and our emotions have limitations. “Pray for the world” is beautiful poetry, and it is an important ideal. But when you actually consider the scope of the world, the number of tragedies happening every day, it is an overwhelming and impossible demand. Yes, refugees in Papua New Guinea deserve our compassion. The victims of Boko Haram violence in Lake Chad deserve our compassion. The victims of domestic violence in Bolivia and the Pacific Islands deserve our compassion. The victims of sexual violence in South Sudan deserve our compassion. Mexicans displaced by drug related violence deserve our compassion. The Lumand indigenous people of the Philippines deserve our compassion.

When we’re made aware of a tragedy we can give it our focus. But “praying for the world,” for all victims of violence and tragedy, is so abstract that we can’t really feel any of it. To focus on everything is to see nothing.  This is not to say that we could not and should not always endeavor to expand our sphere of compassion and understanding. It is simply to explain that it will always be the case that we will focus on the individual tragedies that we believe are closest to us. The world is too big to take it all in.

For the majority of Americans, Western Europeans are perceived to be part of their larger social group whereas Middle Eastern people and Russians are perceived to be part of other social groups. We make all sorts of distinctions as to who is “like us” and who is “different from us.”  We each occupy different circles and spheres and have different emotional bonds. So I, for example, think of Russians as “us” because I am intimately connected to Russian people, even though as an American growing up in the cold war era I was trained to think of Russians more as “them.” So the boundaries of who “we” are and who “they” are can shift. If you knew about Russia only from news stories about Putin on CNN you would have a very incomplete view.

So there is much that I find to agree with in Parikh’s appeal, and if Paris were more of an abstraction to me, I might have found myself nodding entirely in agreement. But reading it after just changing my profile picture to the French flag, I felt a bit slapped by this graphic. It was asking me to feel ashamed for my expression of sympathy for the French. In particular, I was struck by the line that no one’s Facebook status said “Bagdhad because not a single white person died in that fire.”

This line in particular made an expression of solidarity with the French akin to saying “White Lives Matter.”

I will be the first to admit that I am a life-long beneficiary of white privilege. Through no effort on my own part, I have the advantage of being similar in a lot of major ways to the group that our mainstream culture identifies as “us.” I am white, I am from that group that politicians pander to– the great middle class. I come from the Protestant tradition. I’m not a sexual minority. If I want to, I can go through life largely unaware of the challenges faced by people with physical disabilities, or  immigrants or the rural poor. Even when I want to be compassionate, as I have said here before, if you are experiencing a kind of pain that I have not, I might not just be unsympathetic, I might not even notice.

So in that sense, I applaud Parikh for using an emotion that “people like us” might be feeling to try to use it to expand our awareness of something we might be blind to.

But it feels bad to have motives attributed to you by someone who does not know you personally. It feels bad to have someone say they know what you “really mean,” and that it is something negative.

I spoke about this in my last entry when I tried, clumsily, to express what bothered me in a review of my novel. It was not that the reader objected to what I had written. She has every right not to like my work. What bothered me was when she explained why I had written what I had, as if she could see inside my mind. She said she knew my motives– and they were unflattering.

Saying that people did not rally behind the hashtag “Baghdad” because Iraquis are non-white is a gross over-simplification. There is a difference in the level of shock that people will feel when confronted with an act of violence, even to civilians, in an area that has been at war for decades than in one that is perceived to be at peace. When there are repeated stories of violence in a certain area, or of a certain kind, people become numb to it. We are not shocked by violence in Israel, even when victims are white or even American.A terrorist attack in Jerusalem would not evoke the same response.

We still get upset by mass shootings in malls, schools and theaters in the U.S., but the response to more recent events does not match the intensity of our reaction to Columbine. I remember where I was when Columbine happened. I remember feeling horror. I remember my desire for information. How could this happen? When the most recent mass shooting happened, the details of which I honestly don’t recall at the moment, even President Obama expressed the sentiment that our response was becoming routine and that we were weary. Were the lives of the victims of that event any less valuable than those of the Columbine shootings? Of course not. The fact that we cannot react with the same horror to their deaths should not be read as a lack of compassion for them.

We are not able to mourn every U.S. soldier who dies or is injured. Every day gun violence kills more people than mass shootings, but we’re not shocked by statistics. We report on these kinds of shootings only if they are local, when they hit close to home.  Ideally our compassion would not be limited, we would not become weary and would not have famine blindness, but we do. We are human, we are finite, and we mourn our close friends in a different way than we mourn others.

So I agree with much of what Parikh has to say. All of these people matter. But I will not accept that standing with a friend who suffers is the same as denying other people’s suffering.

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s