We are inching closer to a month since the Paris and Beirut attacks. Much outrage poured at humanity’s selective outrage for Paris in the aftermath of the attacks. Facebook had to clarify why it had a Safety Check feature for Paris but not Beirut. The media bent over backwards to show that they had reported both and that their reportage was unbiased and objective. Articles were churned out about how two equally dreadful news items can form different perceptions in people’s minds radically even if media reportage is neutral. And then there were those who opined that it is unfair to be outraged at selective outrage because people tend to empathise more with places and people they were more familiar with. For them, given the images of Paris that the average middle-class person across the world is inundated with (as the capital of love and all things exotic) and the almost nil coverage of Beirut in popular culture, it was only natural for the world to personify a bleeding Paris while letting Beirut slip under the radar of compassion.
What makes people broadcast their views in the aftermath of certain kinds of tragedies while finding such actions unnecessary when certain “other” kinds of tragedies strike? Granted that mourning and condemnation for certain tragedies become more visible on social media due to the selective availability of customized profile picture filters, etc., that the average person cannot keep count of every human tragedy, that the tendency of the media to report selectively or disproportionately contributes to this. But even among the people I know to be reasonably informed, I have noticed a trend towards creating a hierarchy of death. There is a notion that those who died in a conflict zone had it coming and that we from “humanity” must control our emotions and condemnation in these cases since death was well expected here. People who get killed by terror attacks in countries that are well-fortified and have stable Western governments get a whole different treatment. This (perhaps unintended) hierarchy of death has the stench of the sickening logic on which I believe the so-called “Islamic” terrorists work—that certain kinds of death are somehow more honourable or worthy (or mournable) than other kinds.
It is widely held that there are two kinds of people in this world. The ones who feel, and the ones who think (I often find this classification needless.) At the height of the Gaza War last year, when the headcount kept going up every day, I saw some of my friends being ‘practical’ and saying, “The region has a history and context and that brings with it the collateral damage that we see today. We need to look at the broader reasons rather than acting emotionally right now.”
Some of the very same people were deeply troubled by the Paris travesty. Being the thinking, practical individuals they are, would it be so difficult for them to look for the history and context of the Paris attacks? We often ask, “But what is the solution?” in response to a critique of a subject; especially, if the subject is a longstanding social, political or economic dilemma, or a Catch 22 situation. While a problem-solving bent is admirable, the lack of a foreseeable or workable solution (more likely, lack of political will) should not be used to shut down the critique. Critiques keep debates alive, the absence of which can make us neglect certain issues and normalise certain injustices.
The Middle East has been a victim of this normalisation. Violence, terror strikes and massive death counts have been accepted as the norm in the region; to the extent that we consider it “pragmatic” to claim that it is human nature to feel less deeply for civilian tragedies in hotbeds of violence as opposed to, say, the Paris attacks. We blame our collective numbness on numbers. (I find the logic of numbers a fallacy).
Shootingtracker.com records the number of people killed in gun violence in the US at 462 in 2015 alone. It puts the figure of those injured in gun violence at 1314. The harrowing frequency of gun violence did not push the issue to the sidelines in the US. If some deaths are deemed more “mournable”, the “pragmatic” psychology behind it is disturbing.
In many cases, it is insensitivity that passes for pragmatism. But talking down to insensitivity never works to change anything. When someone is crudely called out on their superficial ‘holier than thou’ stances that hold little water otherwise, they are bound to shut the critique down or ignore it. Engagement is the only way out here. Things that are second nature to some sound like far-fetched ideas to many others. Whether or not that is because major sections of society are almost never exposed to non-Eurocentric Left-leaning progressive literature, the discussion has to start and remain in motion. I have found it very difficult to talk to people about the capitalism-Eurocentrism-arms market nexus that fuels terrorism without someone calling it a conspiracy theory. Try discussing how and why it is important to deal differently with states and non-state actors, or speaking of the perils of labelling entire populations as “uncivilized” and “undemocratic”, and what I have noticed is that you will be labelled anarchist or anti-national. Imagine how much more difficult the conversation would be if I were to talk down to them on “lack of perspective” like many Facebook memes have been doing (mocking people who used the picture filter to show solidarity with Paris)?
At a time when refugees are being touted as the reason for terror attacks and no readership is devoted to the follies of the West in the last decade and half which led to the creation of ISIS, we can still afford to be insulated from keeping a loose track of world events and examining everything in the light of history. We live in the age of instant cause-reaction rhetoric. Given selective reportage, it is indeed difficult for the average person to glean a regionally balanced account of world events from multiple sources on a regular basis. Late last year, the popular John Oliver show, Last Week Tonight mentioned US drone strikes in Waziristan and Yemen that no news network featured except the English news channel of the Iranian government. I remember lapping up that bit without checking it for accuracy. Mr.Oliver’s show is a comedy feature, but it has gained a reputation for fact-based content. The avenues for getting your fix of news have multiplied like amoeba and have made it very difficult for one to check for authenticity.
Perhaps the very tragedy-specific availability of profile picture filters and customised hashtag activism makes the response to certain tragedies more visible than others. (That is if you see yourself as separate from the system that produces such specificities). Questioning the humanity of those who seem to practise selective outrage might be uncalled for in many cases. All the same, we must examine whether we operate a wee bit along the lines of the pragmatic psychology I mentioned. The people of this world exist in a myriad of cross-sections that differ in opinions. Opinions of all shades need to be respected. But selective outpouring is not the same as, say, choosing to disengage from the chaos in the world as a whole, or even maintaining that one’s sympathies and concern are limited to certain peoples and regions. (Though both these stances are problematic.) Selective outrage uses words and phrases like “humanity” and “a sad day for history” and says things like “How can people kill people?” The use of universals (humanity, history) for select few incidents is a paradox. It is to imply that the ones unmourned are somehow less worthy of such attention. Unlike the two earlier examples I gave, it is inconsistent with intent.
The other problem with selective broadcast of outrage is that the people who use social media as their only source of news get a further distorted view of the world. These are voters. What happens in other parts of the world not just affects our foreign policy, but also our domestic policy. And if these voters have the equation wrong, be it due to the media, social media or their unwillingness to keep track of things, we will have inhuman policies being formulated. Many states in the US are already closing their doors to refugees citing the Paris attacks, without realizing that the latter themselves are victims of terrorism.
Unless people get a grasp on the open marriage of politics and economics that exists between the various actors of the world, we will continue to see terror attacks in black and white. It is important to ask why the West continues to be an ally of Saudi Arabia, an exporter of Wahabism that fuels the ideology of Sunni Muslim terror groups. The monarchy run by one single family is infamous for human rights abuses but was recently appointed member of a panel in the UNHRC. The role of the panel is to nominate experts to look into human rights challenges. An issue likely to come up before the nominees is the rights of migrants. Given Saudi Arabia’s reluctance to accept refugees of the war in Syria, it is not difficult to gauge its sway on the issue. With Putin accusing Turkey of shooting down an aircraft to safeguard its oil trade with ISIS, I hope viewers will use the opportunity to pose some uncomfortable questions about the war on terror. Even the most disengaged news consumer today views the media through lenses of skepticism. Now is the time for them to look up alternatives for their scoop. At least the people who are active on social media have access to some of these alternative sources online. They, unlike the great unconnected masses, do not have the excuse of lack of access to information.
The world is increasingly beginning to believe in the right to choice of opinion. What happens when some people choose not to engage politically? Even being apolitical is a political statement because silence and disengagement are often taken as tacit approval. If we let everything pass without value judgement, we face the risk of soliciting vulgar post-modernism which is fancy for ‘anything goes’.
The fact that selective outrage on social media at the Paris attacks was pointed out and critiqued and that led to a chain of counter-critiques is heart-warming. It led to previously indifferent people looking up the conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America etc. This would not have been the case had there been no reaction to selective outrage. The idea is to tap fads like picture filters and hashtags and use them to inform instead of seeing them as transient. Facebook clarified that the reason there was no Safety Check for Beirut was the erstwhile policy of the site to provide the feature only for natural calamities. How will it respond to the Chennai flooding? In an age when something as mundane as heavy rainfall can snowball into a calamity due to congested construction in a city, the lines between natural and human-made calamities are blurring. Our responses to and narratives concerning calamities need to keep evolving.