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People Like Us: The Proximity of Empathy

by Katy Preen 4 years ago in opinion
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There are greater distances to overcome than the merely physical ones.

The trial of Ratko Mladic was in the news a few weeks ago, as we saw his lengthy trial draw to a close a full 22 years after he committed his terrible crimes. Justice has been served on many of the major players in the Bosnian War, although there are still some trials ongoing (and some peculiar outcomes). I was a child during the time of the war, and living in the UK, so what I remember of it was gleaned from half-remembered news reports in the early 1990's (I'm glad my parents didn't switch the news off when I was in the room—it's important for children to learn things through the media, rather than face the issues ill-equipped as adults). I didn't appreciate the magnitude and nature of the events at the time—either some things were not reported, or I didn't give the reports my fullest attention—but now I watch and read evidence of the atrocities and I am horrified. A mere 50 years after the Holocaust, there was another genocide within Europe, this one within my lifetime. Have we learned nothing from (very recent) history? The killings were systematic and large-scale. The scenes could easily have been from 1940's Germany or Poland. It feels too soon for history to repeat itself. I hope it never happens again.

The footage below shows Ratko Mladic arriving with troops in Srebrenica, greeted by a young blond-haired boy (it's at around 1.23). He asks the child how old he is, and the boy responds, “twelve.” I was a similar age to that boy in 1995. I wonder if he survived the massacre. Women, small children and the elderly were forcibly removed from their hometown, and the men and boys were executed—thousands of them. Mladic is cheery and pleasant in this scene, yet away from the cameras he ruthlessly massacred scores of innocent people.

In other footage we see civilians being transported, and men clambering for safety in the UN enclosure. The citizens of Srebrenica were predominantly white, and dressed in clothing that people like me would have worn at that time. They speak a different language, yet they seem similar to me. The people of Srebrenica were muslims.

But they don't “look like” muslims... could it be because they are white? And their attire—yes, some women wear headscarves, but they are tied differently, and usually some of their hair is visible—unlike the caricature of the oppressed muslim female we see in western media. I was shocked and disgusted that my reaction to these white, westernised muslims was more empathetic than it would be toward, say, Somali refugees, with their brown skin and funny clothes. A part of it is likely due to the recent demonisation of Islam in the media, and the association with brown-skinned foreigners in flowing robes. Another is because these people are Europeans, people who survived the atrocities of WWII, like relatives of mine, and yet got caught up in this.

There is also the problem of inaccurate and distorted reporting of incidents involving muslims. The overwhelming majority of people killed and oppressed by Islamic extremists are themselves muslims, but more coverage is given to attacks in the west, or opinion pieces on how muslim immigrants are backwards and different. If we didn't see them as “other” before, we sure do now. This is an obvious parallel with the anti-Semitic propaganda of the 1930's & 40's, except the boogeyman has a different religion now.

It's to be expected that we feel more affected by tragedies that happen closer to home, but we should think about what we mean by home. If a disaster happens in Australia or Los Angeles, do we feel more pain and sympathy than if something similar had happened in Iraq or Kenya? From the UK, Iraq and Kenya are closer than either of the first two options, and yet I'd put money on the outcome of that dilemma being on the west-centric side. The rules are slightly different where I live—Manchester is one of the world's most diverse cities (not only in terms of race), and so there are many people living here who do care what happens in places populated by non-whites. But how far does that empathy spread? We know that we don't give as much mental space to things more distant, and no matter how hard one tries, no-one's heart is totally open to everyone.

I try to keep abreast of what is happening internationally as well as nationally & locally. The BBC news service is a good resource for this (if you had to pick only one), and we are lucky to have it. My connections on social media bring stories to my attention that I might otherwise have missed. But it is a double-edged sword. While the world-wide web provides access to more information than we have ever had previously, most of us use it highly selectively. That's one of the problems with having such huge volumes of information—one can't process it all, and we tend to be drawn to the stuff that we already feel familiar with. And so most people operate within echo-chambers. When I speak with my dad over the phone, it's obvious that we consume vastly different news media. We're reading about the same issues, yet the political slant on those stories makes them seem like completely different accounts of the same thing. And this is only a symptom of the problem—we all have the means to access news from all over the world, and from numerous sources. Admittedly, most people don't have the time to critically evaluate a news story from ten different outlets and write an essay on the rhetorical devices employed by the various authors (ah, a writer's life). Before the internet really took off, people picked and chose their allegiances by the types of newspaper they bought, and the company they kept. And it's much the same now, except it's all online and there's more material to sift through. So while we can access whatever information we might need, it doesn't mean that we do. You can take a horse to water, but you can't make it think.

There's always one smartarse...

That's why we so often see exchanges like that above, where someone tweets about a story “that you won't see covered in the mainstream media”, but then we find out that it has indeed been covered in the mainstream media—we're just looking in the wrong places. Of course there are many stories that don't make it on to the front pages, as a result of filtering at the source, which has been happening since the inception of mass media. But the point is that we aren't completely led by the media giants (as much as we love to diss Murdoch and chums). It's probably quite difficult to form one's own view of the world without being influenced by the media and one's peers—after all, the information we opine on has to come from somewhere in the first place. But so few of us take the opportunity to reflect on our own beliefs and allegiances, and so we form virtual tribes. It seems that no-one is immune, but accuse most (privileged) people of bias and they're very quick to justify how open-minded and unbiased they are, even in the face of contradictory evidence.

It's not enough to keep informed—although that is still important, it's really just the bare minimum. We need to do our homework, and analyse the information we absorb, and how we process it. Self-reflection is a useful skill to possess, and not just so that we can rejoice in our new-found "wokeness." Understanding our own strengths and limitations makes us free—you can see the whole world differently when you realise that you're not at the centre of it.


About the author

Katy Preen

Research scientist, author & artist based in Manchester, UK. Strident feminist, SJW, proudly working-class.

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