What explains why we are “All Paris” but not why we are “All Beirut”? What explains the inequality inherent in this image?
This is a really tough question. It goes at the heart of the limits to our empathy, which are as much geographical and institutional as personal.
Essentially, it comes down to the ways that many institutions have come together to create an outcome where, in the West, Western lives are viewed as being more important or more valuable. One has to consider racism and nationalism, the media, the educational system, alliances and geopolitics…
It’s vital to note that most people would not say this idea (that non-Western people are not as important or valuable) out loud, and they don’t even consciously hold it. Heck, I think most people don’t even subconsciously believe it very strongly. There are many out-and-out racists, and many people with more subtle but still quite-real biases, that lead them to dismiss the humanity and importance of Muslims, Arabs, Africans, etc. But in my view, most of these people aren’t really hateful to the average Muslim or non-Western civilian. Many of them are horrified when they hear about Boko Haram, or what ISIS does to fellow Muslims. At the very least, they are willing to use the atrocities that non-Western people inflict upon other non-Western people as a reason to argue for the lesser humanity of non-Western people (all the while being perfectly aware that European nations warred with each other constantly and that Europeans commit crimes against other Europeans all the time just like any other group).
This is one of the most perverse aspects of racism, religious chauvinism and any kind of bigotry: We can identify with innocent members of that community yet use their plight to intensify our devotion to the idea of killing, conquering, or defeating those people. We can sympathize with their torments while still wanting to convert them to our faith. We can view them as victims yet still not want to actually let them settle in our countries.
So, what are some of the causes of all of this?
First, there’s the simple accident of geography. People care about people who are closer to them, more likely to be part of their lives, etc. more. Geography influences economic and cultural exchanges too: If you can easily drive to another city and find yourself doing so somewhat often for work, you care about it more. So, for many Europeans, they’re just geographically closer to Paris, and people in their lives are involved with the Parisian economy to a far greater degree.
But obviously, this won’t do as a complete explanation. Americans are roughly as far from Paris as Beirut. Many Americans have a lot more empathy for people living across the country than Hispanic and Latin peoples who may be living a day’s drive away from them. And geography as a variable is becoming less important as both peoples and ideas find it easier to move, especially as a result of social media. The fact is that, for many people, there are folks across the world they talk to on a daily basis who enrich their lives while there are folks in their very own towns they don’t care much about.
Second, there’s the influence of the nation-state. We’re called upon to view everyone within arbitrary borders as being part of some kind of super-tribe, and everyone outside those arbitrary borders as being outsiders, even if we as individuals have all sorts of cultural or geographical or ecological interests more in common with nearby people across a border than distant people within it. I as a Californian really have a lot of shared interests with the average Mexican: We’re going to face similar climate issues, our economies are interlinked (especially our drug economies)… Meanwhile, me and someone in New Hampshire may watch similar TV shows and speak the same language (though with different accents and slang), but a lot of our economic and ecological interests are quite separate.
Paris, as the capital of a Western nation America is allied to and as part of the eurozone, is more important to many Westerners than Lebanon, which is part of different economic coalitions (as intertwined as they often are) and which has been an enemy of Israel which is basically viewed as a Western country.
The remarkable thing is that, even for millions of people who are not in the military or government and really should not have a stake as to who we are allies of temporarily, these alliances matter. In fact, many people can mistrust and fear their government yet care very much about the alliances their government has.
But, of course, all of this is a prelude to the big ones: Race, culture and religion.
The unfortunate fact is that we view Parisians as basically being white, European and Christian. (Sure, Catholic, and many of them are atheists, but still, they were at least at one point part of the club). They share a lot of our culture, they speak a language we at least recognize, so we just care more.
There’s actually a specific geopolitical factor when it comes to Paris that has to be considered too: The Iraq War and its fallout. Many Americans basically decided to demonize the French for what was perceived as a betrayal, including eating “freedom fries” and refusing to drink French wines. This is actually the outcome of a long historical trajectory in our country. France has generally appealed to those with a more idealistic, Jeffersonian or Wilsonian idea of what America should be like. But as the nation became more imperialistic and colonialist, we began to identify more with the UK than France. Many Americans to this day view the French as cowards for surrendering to the Nazis, discounting the fact that the Nazi war machine was one of the most powerful in the world at the time and that they had successfully attacked the capital. We don’t mock the Poles or any other country that got invaded by the fascists for surrendering, just France.
Whenever France gets victimized, I think we see a trend to overcompensate a little, almost as if to cover up how little many of us cared about the French until this point. I say this as an American, but I’m sure this affects Brits too. Still, most of the rest of the continent hated the Iraq War and don’t resent France for not being part of it.
However, all of these explanations don’t actually go that deep. Where did these racial, cultural and religious trends emerge from? Why do people like these things eclipse their better judgment? So we have to ask about the full range of institutions. And that’s where we can see why this selective concern goes so deep.
The media is of course the biggest institution to blame. Even if the educational system failed to prepare us to understand what was going on, the media could inform us of the history or change their coverage. They don’t.
The media in America especially but even elsewhere in the West tend to represent elite values. They may lean locally more liberal or more conservative depending on the outlet, but they are rarely representative of the values of colonized peoples, labor unions, the poor, etc. Explaining why that’s the case gets rather lengthy (you may have to read FAIR, Michael Parenti’s work, Manufacturing Consent, Necessary Illusions, and so forth), but it makes a lot of sense: A lot of media are dependent on big corporate advertisers and are owned by big corporate institutions; journalists themselves tend to be educated, literate people with at least a bachelor’s degree; if you want to avoid grousing about your coverage, it’s easiest to just avoid pissing off the most powerful people; etc.
What’s crucial about this is that it becomes a cyclical factor. Americans don’t care as much about Beirut because the media won’t cover the bombings there and won’t give proper coverage the other 360 days of the year to really let people understand the Middle East or Africa or Asia. But because Americans don’t care as much, the media don’t start to cover those bombings because the “sex factor” is less. “Who cares about Bayroot! PARIS just got bombed! People go to Paris! We can have a graphic of the Eiffel Tower on fire! It’s perfect!” The media are both a leading and a lagging variable.
Moreover, the media’s access becomes cyclical too. The media know how to report in Paris. They can easily get there by plane, they can interview people in French because it’s likely someone on staff speaks French. But when you have to get to the Middle East, you are less likely to have a branch office or corporate affiliate out there, you’re more concerned about safety, it’s harder to get to the place you need to report, you’re much less likely to have someone on the ground who can easily translate Arabic or Pharsi, etc. (Just think about how hard it must be to report in Africa, where there’s hundreds and hundreds of languages across the continent). Why would the media go out of their way to put themselves into more risk by being in more dangerous locations in order to get coverage that less Americans (or Brits or Germans or…) will viscerally care about?
Then you have to consider the educational system. To really understand the bombings in Paris, you have to understand about 1500 years worth of history. You have to know about the Byzantines, the Crusades, European colonialism, Muslim expansionism, the disputes over the caliphate, internal conflicts in Islam, etc.
In America at least, our educational system just doesn’t cover any of that to any actual depth. From the conservative textbook movements to try to even further whitewash American history to the lack of instructional time we can really spend on world history (while we review US history and civics a ton of times), most Americans just do not have a full grasp of European colonialism and how it’s affecting them today.
If you don’t understand why the Middle East has so much poverty and anti-Western rage, why would you care about them? They’re a bunch of people who speak a different language, have a different religion, look different, and seem to be ungrateful jerks who don’t understand how much your military protects them. You rarely do business with them directly, so who cares?
Someone who knows about how we overthrew Mossadeq and installed the Shah, or how we opposed Nasser and the Nasserites, or about Israel’s covert nuclear weapons, or about how we backed the Ba’ath party and Saddam, or about the actual text of the NPT, or how we back the Saud regime, could see why the rest of the world can so often see America as a hypocritical nation that seems to have historical amnesia. Our leaders take the moral high ground and wag their fingers at other nations even though within the memory of living people we were overthrowing governments and installing dictatorships.
Imagine how confused so much of the world must be. “They say they hate Islam and radical Islamists, but they’re allied with the most brutal and repressive regime of them all! Maybe it’s because the Saudis are so hypocritical that they can tolerate it?” “They say that they want freedom in the region, but they don’t even acknowledge that they backed the Shah!” “They back Saddam first, maybe even help him get WMDs, then turn on him?! What the hell?!”
And since our economic system has such a vested interest in maintaining post-colonial power over much of the world, the people who want to have a status quo where we just ignore what happens to the people who live on top of the oil have a ton of money to throw at the problem. Peace movements, Muslim solidarity and multicultural movements, etc. here struggle to push against this background of ignorance, bias and bigotry.
With the influence of radical religion at play, with many Americans having attitudes about Islam that are inches away from advocating a new set of Crusades, it becomes even harder to get organized political or social or civic will to really try to understand the Middle East.
So all of these factors get in the way of our human empathy. We don’t know about the crises in the Middle East. When we do, we view it as just more barbarism. It’s quite understandable that many Americans might think that we’ve spent so much time and money helping “those people” and it’s hopeless. The French would be innocent victims in that equation, while the people in Lebanon, while innocent, are basically guilty by association, part of the same corrupt world.adds an excellent aspect to this analysis: We’re not surprised by violence in the global South, in places like Lebanon, because we view those places as dangerous areas with warlords and terrorists and maniacs already. We are more surprised by violence in Paris. (However, we’re also not that surprised by violence in Israel, but I would argue that at least for Western outlets the coverage of Palestinian violence greatly exceeds that of the coverage of Israeli violence).
Without realizing how recently the French were involved in the Middle East (like the torture in Algeria), understanding the history of colonialism, or recognizing the way that Wahhabist ideologies come from extreme rage and resentment at a globalized world system that seems to be exploitative to the global South, it’s very difficult for people to step beyond the already-existing barriers of language, religion, geography, skin color, ethnicity, and culture.