Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 9 seconds

A Sad Look at Human Empathy

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 9 seconds

I just wanted to take an honest look at myself and all around me and record this thought.

It is one thing to be a humanist and believe that All Lives Matter. They do. In the wake of much bloodshed in the past few weeks, months, years, we are all vulnerable and every human life lost is someone else’s loved one: their parent their sibling their lover their friend or (the worst possible) their child.

But It is another thing to deny the fact that Rebecca Hogue reminds us of (well she is referring to this article): in practice, all lives do NOT matter equally and some lives require advocacy for their value to be noticed by those in power.

Some losses of life are also more shocking than others and tend to be deemed more newsworthy. 10 people may die in road traffic accidents the same day 5 die in a shooting or bomb, but the 5 will get more attention. Similarly, in war zones, people die every day and it stops being too newsworthy (it’s on the news but stops getting much attention) because it’s similar news all the time with different numbers and locations…it becomes routine of sorts. We stop counting those lives and mourning them properly. At least that’s how it feels here.

Someone posted something really powerful on Facebook today in the wake of the horrendous Paris attacks. Reminding us that it’s time to grieve and show solidarity and support, and it’s not the time to criticize the discrepancy in the reaction to Paris vs the reaction to Beirut the night before. That Facebook had a thing to mark people in Paris safe but not people in Beirut. I don’t even know how this thing works. The bigger wisdom of that post was that the writer of it reminded us that we the Arabs will notice the difference between world empathy towards Western lives vs Arab ones and forget our own lack of empathy for people in non-Arab countries.

Because the sad thing about empathy is that we are more likely to be empathetic toward people who remind us of ourselves. Where it is easier to imagine ourselves in their shoes. On a second level, we are more likely to empathize with a group of people of whom we know some personally (or at least we know of/about them) because in reality I deeply believe that most people are good. And so if you know enough people of a certain category, most of them will be good. When we don’t know anyone from a certain category we are likely to dehumanize them

I am not talking from scientific knowledge, just personal experience.

For example, Egyptians tend to stereotype the English as cold. I know too many English people closely enough that they were not cold to me growing up or as an adult…so I know this stereotype to be untrue.

A friend recently told me he defended Muslims in a convo referring to me. It’s not because I am a non-violent person that someone should believe Muslims exist who are non-violent. It’s just that knowing one personally at a deeply human level reminds us what we share in common. And that most people are good. Most sane emotionally stable people are non-violent. Aren’t they?

But another Facebook post by a friend struck home. She has family in Paris who are Muslim. And she wrote a dual prayer for them to both be protected from the terror AND the likely resulting racism. Double whammy.

And I also read this call to action by a (seemingly of French origin Muslim convert?) journalist who calls for Muslims to react after such violent attacks. To lead the fight against what we Muslims consider a hijacking of the message of Islam rather than distance ourselves from it.

Because yeah – my natural reaction every time is “they don’t represent me. I don’t need to defend this because it doesn’t represent me”.  But in reality, for people who don’t know me or people like me, the violent ones speak louder than me.

There was a time in my life when I used to participate in TV shows (in English but also in Arabic) discussing Islamic themes. The target audience was I think Muslim youth living in the West rather than non-Muslims. But anyway. There was a time when i was much younger and believed that the best way to represent Islam was to do it directly and head on.

But I don’t think so anymore. Not exactly. Well, almost not at all, really.

Who am I to represent Islam such that if I make a mistake it could be blamed on an entire religion or whatever? No one can do that, least of all me.

We are all human. We are all flawed. And one of our flaws is that we empathize with people who are more familiar to us. And another of our flaws is that media can influence us. And that others can influence the weakest of us.

I have no idea what the non-passive thing to do is. None. I’ve been trying to think about this all day, in the midst of painting with my daughter and taking care of some work things and meeting new people online. And worrying. Worrying that the world is not a safe place for anyone anywhere. And wondering. Wondering what can be done to make it better. I don’t believe the answer to stop violence is violence. I have seen how violence breeds violence. But I also don’t see the violence as rational or centralized in the sense that I can’t see what action on whose part could guarantee an end to it. I can see, however, that violent responses by those in power tend to breed more violence. I just don’t have an alternative solution. But I don’t support it because it harms more innocent people. And I also know we all have a role to play in helping young peole not fall victim to extremist influences and get recruited into these circles. I say all because there are so many layers to this. And even though no innocent civilian deserves to die like this, and no justification that is given rationalizes it, and being a good person won’t stop it… We still all have a responsibility. Because next time it could be ourselves or our loved one.

And I don’t really know what role as an individual I could or should have. And I am not sure what Felix Marquardt (journalist i mention above) is calling for us to do. A movement of Islamic reform. I should probably follow up on this and find out what it is.

For now, I am just pointing at myself and reminding myself that empathy is limited in its horizons. That I recognized I empathized more (beyond simple humanity) when I saw all the people I know who were in Paris and marked safe (thanks Facebook), some of whom are Arab, some not. And I know that this matters because it is more shocking than other events where other lives seem not to matter as much, but should.

It’s not about me. But we all need to start somewhere. And ourselves is the first place to start.

(image is the postpainting session w my daughter earlier – added after Jim mentioned it in a comment)

13 thoughts on “A Sad Look at Human Empathy

      1. Mostly I was curious about the Facebook feature, as I wasn’t aware of it before this – but you are right that the west is rather discriminatory about what is deems a “terrorist” attack. It might even be an American centric view – one of the reasons Facebook activated it was because one of the places that was attacked was at a concert of a band from California. I’m pretty sure they would have had a call from the Embassy. Canadians in Paris were told to checkin with their embassy. The news coverage over here was its typical stupid repeating the same things over and over and hypothesizing about “what would we do it if happened in New York” … I was glad that several people on my Facebook stream highlighted the Beirut attacks. The New York Times just put something out –
        I think the press was less here in part because there were less Americans in Beirut. Geography also plays a role – they are so much closer to Syria and Lebanon is often lumped in with news about ISIS and Syria as it if it were the same place.

        1. Ha. Interesting. Btw. I thought it kinda did happen in NY only worse back in 2001? That was the biggest shocker ever. Nothing comes close to the shock of 9/11 in terms of how unexpected it was and on that scale. So i am surprised about the question of NY vs Paris

  1. I replied briefly on FB buy will comment here as well.
    When there is chaos, we so desperately want order that we’re willing to pretend all is binary. It’s a treat to read someone who can admit “I don’t know”.
    I was touched at how honestly you share your feelings of vulnerability. No easy answers. Just a refusal to be anything less than completely human, limiting as that may be. It doesn’t feel like doing much. Yet I’m convinced you have put your finger on the only way forward.
    Oh, and I loved the painted plate. So very human. Thank you Maha for holding up the mirror for us once again.

    1. Thanks Jim. I posted this thinking it had no value but maybe the value is in what you wrote here – the “I don’t know” part. It’s also interesting you mention the painted plate here. It was posted on Facebook and I didn’t include it here but maybe I will (since I mention painting with my girl)

  2. hmmm, thanks for posting something about this Maha. I have been thinking about the incident privately but haven’t acknowledged it publicly because I don’t know quite what to make of it all. I saw a post from someone with similar sentiments on the seeming imbalance of the media coverage on this story vs others, where many more lives are regularly lost. I think there’s truth in that, but it’s also a bit simplistic too as the thing which people tend to fear from this event is the takeover of ‘free’, western democracy by potentially unstoppable terror and violence; the beginning of end of life as we know it. Not merely the number of deaths recorded. It’s an interesting point you make about empathy – I do think it’s definitely the reason why we pay attention and fear these situations, when they occur – because they’re unexpected yes, but also because the victims remind us of ourselves.

    1. The point about Western democracy raises my hackles. Democracy in the US seems to include the right to carry guns. Democracy in France seems to include oppressing religious expression in some ways. I don’t even think it means one thing nor that it necessarily protects against violence or guarantees social justice. I am terribly naive politically but I really don’t think that’s at all what’s at stake here. Though I can understand if that’s how some (or many) individuals feel

      1. Many people think that democracy is a single ‘thing’ – unless they are involved in some form of politics, or learn to appreciate the differences between governing bodies. There is no perfect democracy. But also, democracy is horribly complicated. I think that is something that people don’t appreciate. It isn’t as simple as letting the people vote – it involved decided on how they vote and how the votes are counted and what gets votes on and so many other things. In some countries, democracy is a way to ensure that the same powerful people stay in power. The other challenge is that stupid people get to vote – and their vote counts as just as equal as smart people – there is no difference. I don’t mean that in a mean way – just that you can know nothing about the candidates or the election issues and you still get a vote that is equal to someone who does understand the difference between propaganda and facts. It is an imperfect system – and it isn’t a single system either – every country has its own flavor of democracy … it kind of annoys me when people talk about it as if it were one thing … it is imperfect but perhaps it is the best we have?

  3. Yes, all lives matter. Hold everything dear.

    Maha gives important expression to this hugely important idea of human solidarity. When I experience joy, sorrow, grief, trauma, it is the same kind of thing that other people – in very different situations – experience across the globe. Of course, the expression of joy, sorrow, grief and trauma are culturally mediated and thereby culturally differentiated. But when I experience intense suffering, it is the same feeling – the same complexity of response – that others feel. My trauma is no different from yours – or anybody else’s – in most of the ways that really matter. I am never isolated – privileged – in my suffering. We are united in our human fragility.

    The appalling and unimaginable suffering inflicted upon the people of France must be acknowledged. But we also have to acknowledge that others have suffered: in particular, those who have endured air attacks from the West that have undoubtedly destroyed civilian lives and families. When I look at the carnage on the streets of Paris, I see also other streets where the dead and maimed lie unacknowledged. And then I find it impossible not to make a connection between that failure of acknowledgement – and respect – and what happens on the streets of Paris.

    Like Maha, I have no easy solutions. But I do think that whatever solutions may – or may not – be found to our global self-inflicted suffering resides in our capacity to seek to understand. Doctors heal – and they have their Hippocratic Oath to guide them; but teachers also have a Socratic Oath which demands that under all circumstances we seek to understand and to encourage understanding. Under the current circumstances that injunction is of supreme importance.

    The poet W.H. Auden had a lovely line: ‘We must love one another or die’. Rather more mundanely, I suggest that we must understand one another or die.

    Jon Nixon

    1. Thanks Jon for the thoughtful response. The quote near the end got me thinking how we can love someone without really understanding them…and that we need to strive to understand others even when we don’t love them. Question is: does understanding lead to love, or is that not our goal? I tend to think it should be…but maybe I am too naive

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