Selective Empathy

18 Nov 2015

Every time I think I have a healthy view of others, something reminds me of the darkness of my own heart and my need to adjust my thinking. Just when I think I’ve reached maturity, I get a glimpse of how much my character still needs developing.

While I usually write on timeless issues, I must present this topic in light of recent events—terrorist attacks.

All humanity is facing the reality of an energized movement committed to world domination. To them, it’s a holy war not only sanctioned, but commanded by God. How members of ISIS can excuse their actions is likely a topic for another day; it does show the propensity of humankind to justify belief systems—no matter how diabolical—and to control. The same predisposition exists in us all.

But the topic at hand is how we parse out empathy and compassion willy-nilly.

After the Paris bombings, Facebook, the press and the Western world in general were awash in chatter, prayers, moments of silence and monuments lit up in the colors of the French flag. There was a huge outpouring of love and support.

But where was any sense of Western compassion when 14-year-old Ali Awad and more than 40 others lost their lives in double suicide attacks in Beirut the day before? It hardly made the American news.

A Lebanese doctor wrote in a blog article titled, A World That Doesn’t Care About Arab Lives, “When my people died, no country bothered to light up its landmarks in the colors of their flag…There was no global outrage…Their death was but an irrelevant fleck along the international news cycle, something that happens in those parts of the world.”*

Another group dismissed was the Russian tourists. Where was the international outcry when it was discovered that the airliner that crashed in Sinai was the work of an ISIS bomb. 224 people lost their lives, almost a hundred more people than were killed in Paris. But we saw no rallying to our Russian comrades.

The truth is, we have selective empathy. Lives are not equal to us.

I consider myself to be fairly equitable. I’ve traveled to more than 60 countries, have friends of almost every flavor, and even have multiple ethnicities in my immediate family.

Yet I can be shocked at some of my own reactions to others.

I have been watching multiple documentaries and news reports in an attempt to wrap my head around the spread of ISIS. My social science mind wants to understand the movement and gage the threat to the world.

Image from ISIS in Afghanistan
Image from PBS documentary

I just saw a PBS (Public Broadcasting System) special about the growing power of ISIS in Afghanistan. It showed kid being indoctrinated with jihadist ideals and taught how to use weapons. I was appalled, but no more so than when I saw little blonde kids in the footage. That’s when my I got really empathetic. My thoughts of Oh those poor little blonde kids (who don’t look Afghan),” was quickly followed by, “I can’t believe my heart goes out to them more than the little dark-eyed, dark-skinned kids.”

Seriously? And I think of myself as a mature person of faith?

Image from ISIS in Afghanistan
Image from PBS documentary

The same scenario is played out again and again, not only in me, but also in our culture.

Academic studies reveal that we are attracted to people who are like us. I also found in my dissertation research that similars attract. We feel more of an affinity to those who are regionally or cultural close. But not all of our propensities and leanings are noble. The “us” and “them” mentality has not proven very helpful in human history.

Americans may recall the name, JonBenét Ramsey, a little girl who was murdered in her Boulder, Colorado home twenty years ago. It was the focus on wall-to-wall news coverage and water-cooler speculation. After all, she was a cute, white, innocent, blonde beauty queen.

But what about the little black girls murdered on a regular basis in south side Chicago or African kids who die everyday from dirty water and malaria?

We like to think of ourselves as loving, benevolent and unbiased. We like to think we respond like Jesus.

But the reality is we allow ourselves to be manipulated by what the press chooses to cover (and not cover), are victims of our own biases, and are selectively empathetic.

We are one people on one planet and we need to figure out how to live together.

French lives matter. Lebanese lives matter. Russian lives matter. All lives matter, even the ones that don’t look like us or share our neck of the woods.

I have to keep searching my heart. I hope you will too.







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