Paris, Beirut, Garissa and a couple of thoughts on the role of media in fostering empathy
Since the horrific Paris events social media is inundated by posts expressing solidarity with the victims of the attacks. Surprisingly, my Facebook feed is covered almost in equal part by posts reminding us and the media that these events occur daily in other parts of the world. Without anybody noticing.
I have been thinking over and over why I find this argument annoingly simplistic. Here my two cents:
As people we pay attention, and we care for those that we feel close. Family, friends and in some cases colleagues. We can only be truly empathetic to those that we can relate to. To be able to put ourselves in somebody else shoes we need to believe that others feel similar emotions and have similar drivers.
Only then we can be compassionate towards them.
In the case of violence appearing in non western parts of the world. Even though the argument that they are less covered by western media its probably correct, I would argue that even if they were covered as much as the Paris events, we probably wouldn’t care.
In most cases we feel unrelated to the victims of last week Beirut attacks as much we feel disconnected to those killed in the attacks at Garissa in Kenya last April. We feel distant and different from them. Thus we don’t care.
If there is one complaint, it should be targeted towards the media inability to foster empathy towards those that live just across the Mediterranean. Alain de Botton perfectly describes this issue in his book The News: A User’s Manual.
If it was for the news nothing happens in the middle-east or in East Africa beyond despair, atrocities and corruption. This kind of discourse, reminiscent of colonial rhetoric, has as a divisive outcome. It reiterate how different we are from them, resulting in a boost in our superiority complex.
If the objective of the Paris attackers was to divide, they won’t succeed without the help of the news organisations.
Maybe is time to change rhetoric and start telling the stories of what makes us similar.