Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 9 seconds

Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

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)


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