In 2008, terrorists slaughtered 164 people in Mumbai in a series of coordinated attacks around the city. I used to live in Mumbai, or Bombay as most of the locals still call it, and as such, the news of the attacks there really hit me hard. This is a city in which I still have many friends, a wonderful, beautiful, confounding, dynamic city that welcomed me with open arms, a place that’s home to some of the most lovely people you’ll ever meet — and here it was, under attack by murderous fanatics. The news was devastating, the pictures horrifying.
I’ve thought about this a lot over the weekend, for obvious reasons. When the attacks on Mumbai happened, there was plenty of media coverage, but there was nothing like the outpouring of grief and anger on social media that there has been in the aftermath of the attacks in Paris — well, not from my friends in America or Australia, at least. No one was changing their profile picture to the Ashoka Chakra. Those who had lived or still lived in India, of course, were aghast, and expressed their grief via Facebook and Twitter. Everyone else? Not so much.
At the time, I didn’t find this especially objectionable, because the reasons seemed obvious — Mumbai is not a city with which most of these people had any sort of connection. You can read about terrorists murdering people in Churchgate station, but you don’t appreciate the full horror of that if you haven’t been through that station a million times, if you haven’t seen how insanely crowded it is at rush hour, if you don’t wonder if all the old guys who are there providing shoe shines for a few rupees got out alive.
What I’m getting at here is that the depth of the emotional response you have to a tragedy is proportional to the personal connection you have to that tragedy. I don’t think anyone would deny that this is the truth, but nevertheless, there’s a general unease at accepting it: much of the debate online in the wake of the Paris attacks has been about the apparently disproportionate coverage of those attacks in comparison to other incidents around the world. The most cited example is that of the double suicide bombing in Beirut the day before the Paris attacks.
There’s a discussion to be had here about the enduring Eurocentrism of the Western media, one that is valid and important. But, equally: many of us have been to Paris. Many of us have been to a venue like the Bataclan to see a band like Eagles of Death Metal or to a stadium like the Stade de France to see a sports event. And so, for a lot of people, there is a personal connection here: a sense that this happened in a city very much like the one in which we live, in environments very similar to the ones we frequent. There’s an unmistakable dread catalyzed by these attacks, which no doubt was the terrorists’ intention: it could have been us.
Have you been to Beirut? I haven’t. (I’d love to, for what it’s worth, but I’ve not had the opportunity to visit that particular corner of the Mediterranean yet). And so, when I read about the suicide bombing there on Thursday, I felt… sad. From what I know about Beirut, it’s a cosmopolitan and pleasant city that’s recovered wonderfully well from the trauma of civil war in the 1980s, and the idea that suicide bombers could strike there was legitimately frightening — anyone who knows anything about geopolitics knows that this is a very different situation from the ongoing chaos in Syria and Iraq, despite Lebanon’s proximity to those countries. But you read about this stuff all the time these days. And your defense mechanisms go up.
I’m not attempting to justify or defend this response. In a wholly objective sense, it’s indefensible. But at the same time, we have emotional defense mechanisms for a reason. The logical extreme of the, ahem, “all lives matter” line of thinking is that I should feel the same grief for the death of an unknown person in a faraway country as I would for my own mother. In purely objective terms, again, this is true — all human lives are of equal value. But if we did process grief that way, we’d either all go crazy or we’d all cease to care about any death much at all. Neither of those are particularly great options, both in an evolutionary sense — neither would be conducive to the long-term survival of any species — nor in a practical sense. And so, we process the loss of those closest to us in a different way — or, at least, to a differing extent — than those who are not close.
Our emotions are our emotions. Happily, as human beings, we are also blessed with self-consciousness. We can look at ourselves, and interrogate how we act, how we feel, and why we feel the way we do. We can do this in regard to the way we respond emotionally to the deaths of our fellow humans. And we could also stand to do it in regard to the way we behave, especially on social media, in the wake of such deaths. This weekend, at least, the way many people have behaved is by indulging in a spot of obnoxious grief shaming, which if nothing else has served to demonstrate that social media is a terrible forum for discussing pretty much anything.
What I saw playing out on Facebook this weekend was a variation on what Nitsuh Abebe called The Game, in this remarkably prescient essay (it really is compulsory reading if you’ve not come across it before): a sort of moral point-scoring competition, whereby demonstrating that you’re the Better Person is more important than the issue at hand. If you’re arguing that our media should be fairer and more thorough in the way it covers foreign tragedy, you have a point. If you’re implying that your Facebook friends are latently racist or callous or morally inferior for shedding tears over Paris or changing their profile picture to a tricolor, you might just be being an asshole. (I say “might” because there certainly are people who genuinely don’t care about what happens to people who don’t share their race or heritage; fuck those people. Obviously.)
It’s important to think about why you respond the way you do to the news of another suicide bombing in Iraq, if all you do is sigh and turn the page — especially given the extent to which that the deaths of those people are directly connected to the actions of the US and other Western governments. It’s important to remember that politicians and corporations are well aware of the existence of compassion fatigue, and that they use it to expedite policies we might find unconscionable if they were directed at those we hold dear. It’s important to think about how the current state of Africa and the Middle East is, in many ways, a whole lot of postcolonial chickens coming home to roost — and about how colonialism as a whole is enabled by the very fact that people don’t have as much empathy for the suffering of those on foreign shores as they do for people at home. It’s important to think about why ISIS exists, and why. And it’s important to discuss these things.
It’s important to use your brain, because its capacity is far larger than that of your heart. Sadly, those playing The Game on social media are doing neither. It’s nonsense to insist that you’re some sort of emotional superhero, and that those who don’t react like you do (or like you feel you should) are somehow inferior. The last thing the world needs at this point is for us to find new ways to be horrible to one another.