Do only western lives matter? Why do some feel like that? Whose fault is it anyway?
It’s been 3 days since a suicide bomber struck Lal Shahbaz Qalandar Sufi shrine in Pakistan, the death toll has already crossed a 100 and is poised to grow.
In a way it seemed almost surreal. Did we not just read about a bomb blast? Is the news cycle just being revived or is this another one? But the worst was true, and it turned out to be deadlier than the blast at Lahore, a mere three days before.
Quickly, as if on cue, comes the piece accusing the world of not paying attention, of only western lives mattering, and of a lament that such incidents pass without a furore.
This is becoming a pattern — A terrorist attack in the non-western world, and within 24–48 hours, there are status messages and social media updates about the hypocrisy, with certain online publications with massive audiences joining in. These pieces are then lauded for their self-awareness. But is that really true?
Firstly, it’s becoming difficult to distinguish who exactly this outrage and anger seems to be blaming? The western media? White people (meaning people from the US, Canada, Europe, NZ and Australia? Brown people? Or Black people? Who exactly is ignoring these events that there is now a storm of regret and disappointment over the reaction to tragedies?
Let’s take the first category — the media. It’s becoming extremely hard, on the international platform to decide who exactly is the ‘Media’ — Is it CNN? BBC? Al Jazeera? The Guardian? Xinhua News? So one can’t exactly be furious and self-reflective unless there is a target. Most of these are recognized media houses with a deliberate national focus and unsurprisingly, cover their own national events in far greater depth than international events. The exception may be Al Jazeera, but their own areas of focus are also well defined. So yes, when an event occurs halfway across the world, unsurprisingly, certain media houses and publications do not devote tens of articles of pages to it. Certainly, there is coverage, but it is generally restricted to the bare facts and some opinion analyses. Unless there is a UN sponsored and controlled media channel, what right, or legitimate expectation does anyone have that all news media will cover every region, every position and every ideology equally?
To which the response will be, that certainly, the media does find time to cover Western attacks, even if it does not occur in their own country in pitiless detail, tracking events as they unfolded and updating their analysis in real-time. In this category one generally lumps the BBC, CNN, Reuters, AP and the Guardian. True, but I would argue that the shared political and security interests among these countries explains the phenomenon. I explain that further in detail below.
Then who is the blame being directed at — Westerners? We are now blaming westerners for caring more about the attacks in their own country than halfway around the world? Is this even rational? Of course, people care more about their home countries than of others. That’s a basic, surviving human impulse. None of us, not even the most altruistic, philanthropic, activist minded can successfully claim that we don’t care about our homes and home countries more than other countries. We do. We worry about our parents and friends, and while we are capable of feeling pity and anger for those lost senselessly, it’s the loss in familiar circumstances / conditions that hurt the most. So, are westerners generally callous about tragedies elsewhere? There seems little evidence to think so. During the Paris attacks, I happened to be with a French friend and notified him when the news came in. He anxiously called his girlfriend who was in Paris at the time. But a little while later, he says “There were blasts in Beirut a few days ago, and I wasn’t this shaken. Now I am. How selfish am I?” I hastened to assure him that worrying about a city you know and love, in which you have friends, is a very reasonable reaction and one cannot expect such shock and grief when it is barely connected to you. So, is the assumption that westerners are generally only interested in their own countries and never about others? Again, the evidence is to the contrary. In 2014, there were demonstrations all over Europe during the last Palestine-Gaza conflict. A conflict that gets little, if any media attention in the Global East and South. Britain’s decision to join the coalition bombing Syria was preceded by large, angry protests by the English against the proposal; the annihilation of Aleppo provoked very strong reactions in several quarters of the western world. Are westerners inhuman? It’s hard to take that claim seriously.
Still, you could credibly argue that the attacks in Paris, Brussels, Orlando and Berlin elicited far greater reactions than others. But I wonder, is it not true that despite the cultural, national differences, the western world views itself as a composite unit? Note that these same media outlets will otherwise describe ‘western liberal democracy’, ‘western wealth and power, ‘western nations’. The term western, used to collectively describe US, Canada, Europe, New Zealand and Australia. One could wonder why New Zealand and Australia are on this list, but the fact is these populations largely feel related or connected. Among military and trade alliances, the same patterns can be found; in fact, New Zealand and Australia are part of the five eyes alliance to share surveillance information with the US. Irrespective of geographical distance, cultural and national differences therefore, these governments consider each other as allies, and the populations also feel a certain kinship. Is it really so bizarre that attacks in this part of the world provoke strong reactions from the collective populations of these countries? Is it so unreasonable? Or is it only possible that the reason there are stronger reactions is because westerners consider only ‘white lives matter’? I find it hard to believe it’s the latter. It rather seems more like the western collective population as a whole, sees threats to one of these countries as a threat to their security, and react accordingly — With sympathy, fear and resolve.
Who is the anger directed at then? Non-westerners? People of colour? On the face of it, that seems rather bizarre. Why would the populations of the non-western, non-white, non-Christian world care more about them than about the deaths and tragedies of people closer to them? I would hazard that this is more a function of the relationships in the rest of the world, and occasional exceptions than an indictment of ‘western media’. Yes, people from all over the world were shaken about Paris (for eg) and expressed it. Does that mean they care less about Iraq, Syria and Lebanon for instance? Or is it because Paris was closer and more familiar to more people? Do many foreigners have experiences, friends and memories of Paris? Can we validly say the same about Baghdad, Aleppo or Mogadishu? I suspect not. The storm of emotion that rocked the online world then, may not have been a subtle expression of the importance of white lives, but of a mixture of fear, grief and sadness that such a well-known city should be so cruelly hit.
There is also, and this is perhaps the saddest but most predictable explanation of all. Tragedy fatigue. We expect bad news from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Libya but not so often from the West. It’s sad that the population is numbed to the suffering in these places, but it is not intentional, nor does it imply that western lives matter more. It’s an inevitable consequence when stories of tragedies from elsewhere are too frequent and become the norm rather than the exception. But a new hit always strikes fresh, and bleeds more. Note the relative lessening in reaction to the Brussels attacks as compared to Paris, when the population was getting a little more used to it. Note the lack of display picture changing when the Orlando massacre, or the Nice tragedy took place — grief, but no longer shock, people were getting used to it. The attacks in Berlin barely made waves. It seems as death becomes normalized, it becomes as normal for both white people and others. Very few people share and post about campus shootings in the US anymore. The first couple were tragic, now people are used to it. Arguably, if only western /white lives mattered, this fatigue shouldn’t have occurred. But it did. Again, other factors contribute to said lack of reaction (notably the view that the US can solve the problem if it tried). When the Chibok girls were first taken, there was an outpouring of anger leading to the hashtag. But after a while it dried up. Numbness comes after sustained grief and frustration at the helplessness. Doesn’t that itself reflect humanity? Do we really believe that there is human capacity for constant and intense sadness at the same news over a long period of time? The situations are terrible, and should be remedied and not forgotten. But human capacity for grief and fear is also limited. It’s how we survive.
But surely, citizens of neighbouring countries would be able to feel that pain? Here we come to the most bitter realization of all — Non-western lives don’t matter less because western lives matter more, but because the non-western world failed to bond in a way the West did. Do you feel the western media report doesn’t report properly on Africa and Asia? Don’t rely on it — look to Middle Eastern, Asian and African sources for news and appropriate coverage of these regions. Support their journalism and highlight it, their sources and resources are probably better. Demand that Asia, Africa, and the Middle East do more to protect their part of the world, not just their own countries. Europeans grieved with Parisians and Belgians and Berliners — perhaps South East Asia should grieve for its collective more, and not restrict themselves to national interests. Do Indians and Afghans care as much about Pakistan? Shouldn’t they? Do these regions not share a history and a culture and proximity? Asia has largely stood by and ignored the annihilation of the Rohingya, while faulting the US treatment of refugees. Is it not on us to care more for our neighbours and our cultural kith and kin? Did Nigeria’s neighbours worry about Boko haram until the group encroached? Should these citizens not make that attempt?
This is not to pit the East and South against the West, that would be manifestly undesirable. It is just to point out that, if it seems like western lives matter more, it’s because they have formed bonds and alliances that presents them as a unified force. Maybe Asia and Africa should do the same. Maybe we should care more about our neighbours than we do, reach out when they need us. Maybe there should be a concerted effort to grow alliances and relationships in this part of the world, so that these countries share in their growth and potential, in trade and security, in media and global influence. Perhaps the cultural similarities should be celebrated, and used to build on. If so, then tragedies in this part of the world will be felt as deeply, solidarity will be easier to come by, and the regions as such can grow stronger.
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