I find our apparent lack of empathy disturbing

Je suis la fromage! Sorry, I haven’t used any French since 7th grade, but whatevs my Tricolore vacation pic totally defeats ISIL.

Last Thursday in Paris, more than 120 people were killed murdered as they went about their lives, where they live, as we all do most of the time. One day before that, in Beirut, more than 40 people were murdered as they went about their lives, where they live, as we all do most of the time. In the past ten years, while it is hard to get anything like an exact count, between 500 and 1,300 bystanders have been murdered by US drone strikes in the four countries (Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan) where our armed forces are engaged in drone warfare. That is between a half and a full Paris attack worth of (innocent, civilian) casualties every year for ten years. More recently, and not involving drones but instead people flying an AC130 gunship, a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan was bombed; several survivors of the initial bombing were killed by gunfire from the plane as they attempted to flee the building. Patients burned to death, left in beds by fleeing staff, who where themselves decapitated by shrapnel in the hospital or cut down by machine gun fire outside. That’s real, it happened, at a hospital, and recently.

So let’s take a deep breath and acknowledge that horrors, like the attack on Paris, are a daily occurrence in our world. Human beings, in many places, are being killed murdered where they live as they go about their daily lives. In the West, we might see a Syrian refugee and worry if he is a terrorist. Eek! In the middle east, someone might see the same guy and wonder if he is going to provide a target for a drone strike on the apartment building. Eek! So the mayhem, and the fear of the mayhem, are shared experiences by all of us that are party to, even if not actively enlisted in, the war for the Greater Middle East. It has to be said too that in the middle east itself, most folks are living with much more fear of much more mayhem than anyone in the West, even after Thursday’s attack.

As with any tragedy that shocks the collective unconscious of Western culture, there is an opportunity to use the intensity and solidarity of feeling to take some action in the world. There are differing views on exactly what the opportunity is, of course.

One view is that it is an opportunity to escalate the cycle of violence, as French President Francois Hollande has promised to do. No doubt more air to surface bombs dropped in Syria will prevent future bomb vests being worn in France. (That is sarcasm.)

The French and American right wings are seizing the opportunity to expand their appeal and mollify their base, respectively, by promising to resist or refuse Syrian refugees and/or demanding more bombs be dropped and maybe some ground troops deployed.

Many people, not being in command of any armed forces or state governments, are looking for a more personal way to express their grief and solidarity and have found that Facebook’s offering of the Tricolore superimposed on profile photos is a way to do that. As Lulu Nunn already accurately, and bravely, pointed out in The Independent:

It’s a dismaying and damaging truth that Westerners care about and empathise with images of white-skinned women grieving in Topshop bobble hats far more than brown-skinned women grieving in niqabs and, when you lend your voice to Euro-centric campaigns such as Facebook’s flag filter, you exacerbate this. When we buy into such easy corporate public mourning, we uphold white supremacy. We’re essentially saying that white, Western lives matter more than others.

This sentiment, when it washes across the world via Facebook in a sea of blue, white and red, provides a get-out-of-jail-free card for the West’s slaughter of Middle Eastern people in retaliation, causing the very thing we’re supposed to be up in arms over: the loss of innocent lives.

I strongly encourage you to read the entire article, as it is very good, and includes several points that I cut from this piece because Nunn wrote them better. Of course the comments section and responses Nunn has received on Twitter are a magnificent case study in white fragility, but I digress.

Wait no, that’s not a digression, that is the whole point: What all of these responses to the tragedy have in common is that they are all about white supremacy.

What is white supremacy? It is the allocation of resources and orientation of public policy to transfer benefits to white people and away from non-white people. President Hollande is promising to violently reallocate life away from Syrians – many of them terrorists yes, but plenty of innocents will die too and we all know it – in order to preserve the lives of Parisians. Governors in several US states are promising to resist resettlement of Syrian refugees, which is pretty clearly a(n unconstitutional) reorientation of policy to take a chance for actual security away from some Syrians in order to increase the sense of security felt by white American voters. And yes, Facebook also changed their policies (using people tracker for conflict rather than disaster, for the first time) and reallocated some resources (the profile photo modifier) in a way that benefitted white people impacted by, or empathizing with, the horrific attacks in Paris. No such tracking app or profile mod is available for citizens of Lebanon, or anywhere else, recently or regularly impacted by terror and war.

The responses I have seen to Nunn’s piece are, in a bizarre way, kind of hopeful. Nunn came right out and said “this is corporate white supremacy, people” and the responses fall into two categories:

(1) The blunt, fragile, white id: RAWR!!! Ragey rage ragey rage you suck stop speaking RAWR!

(2) The nuanced, fragile, white superego: Hey, of course it is easier to empathize with people in France. I’ve been there, I know people there, it is closer to my home and my heart than Beirut or Damascus and people are just expressing genuine grief. Don’t be such a party pooper!

There is no response to (1), because that’s just psychoemotional bile being heaved onto keyboards, but (2) shows that most folks buying clicking into this act of corporate white supremacy have already accepted the part of the argument that says they are only empathizing with (white) people that seem like them. The opportunity here is to say: yes, that’s right, and the concentration of our empathy on those (white) people like us comes at the expense of our empathy for the (not white) people who live lives of terror, never knowing if it will be a jihadi, or a bomb meant for a jihadi, that kills them (or their kids).

Empathy and white supremacy are not natural allies, they are natural enemies. Empathy, if cultivated, can be felt by any human for any human – not just by like human for like human. To the degree that we in the universal-empathy camp engage in debates via Twitter, Facebook, etc about the responses to this attack, we should endeavor to focus on cleaving genuine empathy away from unintentional white supremacy. Because empathy is not a feeling, it is the most valuable human resource on the planet, and I believe asking people to more evenly allocate their empathy to include other kinds of people, rather than attacking them for not being critical of Western media and governments, is a winning argument. (Particularly when it is increasingly clear that the media cannot be blamed for our lack of caring about other people.)

Returning to the idea that there is an opportunity here, and my belief that any strong emotional response is an chance to become more self-aware, the shock and horror felt about the Paris attacks are an opportunity to better see ourselves. In a way that does, naturally, feel “closer to home,” we have been reminded that armed conflict is a horrible thing to live with and that the people who commit it are shockingly difficult to understand or tolerate. And that’s us – we are people who commit a lot of the armed conflict in the world. We have been for a while. And it is shockingly difficult to understand, or once understood to tolerate, the way Western nations just deploy soldiers and armaments anywhere we want to, anytime we feel justified in doing so. This is where empathy can be an ally against white supremacy: If it is wrong for people to be murdered where they live, going about their daily lives, then it is wrong everywhere for all people. It doesn’t matter if they’re the intended targets of terrorists or the collateral damage of a legally authorized drone strike – it is wrong to murder people where they live, as they go about their daily lives.

Let’s make room in our consciousness for the victims of violence everywhere while we make room in our neighborhoods for the refugees fleeing that violence.


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