In the wake of the most recent attack on Paris, citizens across the globe are in mourning over the lives lost in the attack, which the extremist group ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) have reportedly claimed was their doing.
People across the globe are demonstrating their mourning for those who were killed or injured in Paris via social media (Facebook users laying a transparent French flag over their profile pictures, which has been criticized) and the organizing of vigils and rallies.
Seeing people in sincere grief over the lives lost in Paris gives me hope that we are slowly, but surely, becoming a more empathetic, humane global community.
However, I find it difficult to witness these actions alongside the lack of recognition and/or awareness Western nations have for the lives of people who aren’t living in wealthy, Western nations.
This past summer, 147 people were killed at Garissa University College in Kenya by Somalian extremist group, al-Shabaab. Despite global coverage of this tragedy, the outcry in response to the horrors committed in Kenya paled in comparison to flood of sorrow and solidarity given to the citizens of Paris.
What do these differing responses, to very similar tragedies, reveal about who we as Westerners are able and/or willing to empathize with? And what is the cause of our imbalanced ability to empathize?
More recently, the attacks in Beirut, Lebanon, which resulted in the reported deaths of 47 people, received a significantly smaller amount of attention than the attacks in Paris as well.
In an article on her website Aphro-ism, Black feminist vegan, Aph Ko, writes about how we’re taught to associate humanity with Whiteness and being white; meaning, within a white supremacist perspective, white people are the only people on the planet who are complete human beings.
Backing up Ko’s assertions are studies in race and empathy; it has been proven that, generally, white people have a limited ability, or inability, to empathize with PoC.
In large part, a stunted ability to empathize has much to do with an inability/unwillingness to completely acknowledge the humanity of the other person/people. And the West has a long history of devaluing the humanity of people in the Middle East and Africa.
In a piece published on Quartz, Emma Kelly condescendingly asserts that, while news media actually did give coverage to the attacks in Kenya and Beirut, the lack of outcry stems from news media consumers’ lack of Western attentiveness to international news.
While I don’t completely disagree with Kelly’s argument (mainstream Western media ignores many, many international tragedies), I do add that part of Western media consumers’ lack of attentiveness to the plights of people in Africa and the Middle East stems from a lack of empathy as well.
And, while I don’t believe empathy is a panacea for global injustice, I do believe apparatuses for injustice would be less difficult to overcome if people were genuinely interested in doing the work of justice for everyone.
If we are unwilling to interrogate and expand our own empathic capacities, than those in power who clearly have stunted empathic capacities will continue to exploit, subjugate, and domineer. This said, even while critiquing those who are blatantly misusing their power, it is critical that everyone remain vigilant in holding themselves accountable and avoid seeking out scapegoats to assuage feelings of guilt.
Of course, a lack of empathy doesn’t completely explain Western citizens’ responses to this most recent wave of extremist violence, however, it is of utmost importance to expand our empathic capacities as people across the globe are being facing extremists violence in the face of broader injustices.