Empathy Without Borders

I felt moved to write this post after several days of observing social media, conventional media and political responses to the terror attacks in Paris on Friday 13th November.

I am currently in the U.S. and have witnessed a surprisingly large outpouring of grief and shock for events in what I thought was considered a far-off European country. Half of my family and many of my friends are French and live in Paris, and I have spent a lot of time there. I was shocked and saddened by attacks, and I will admit a little scared. But the scale of the reaction here in New York has far eclipsed that of mine or my family’s.

Some have responded to this outpouring of support and sadness by condemning it; you’re not allowed to express outrage about Paris if you don’t express it about Beirut or Baghdad.  I don’t agree with those who attack expressions of pain, solidarity and compassion, but I will admit that something about the scale of the response has made me sad, and it’s taken a few days to explore why in my own mind.

Last night I read this post which condemned the backlash against condolences with Paris. I agree that it is wrong to tell people that they shouldn’t feel shocked or sad by events, but I do believe that it’s valid  to raise the fact that similar events are happening all over the world and deserve equal attention and attempts at empathy.

This time last year I was throwing all my time and effort into raising money for the hundreds of thousands of Yezidis who were displaced by IS/Daesh in some of their earliest and most brutal attacks. Those who escaped murder or kidnap were facing death from exposure as winter drew closer in the formal and informal refugee camps of the cold, Kurdish north. It was a real battle to raise money for them, even though all we were asking for was $10 to buy a blanket for a family that could save the life of its youngest and most vulnerable members. All donations were to go directly to blankets, with my husband and I paying the charity’s overheads for the project.

While some of my friends and contacts reacted with great generosity towards and empathy with the plight of these victims, many ignored it. Raising money for victims in Iraq was not at all popular, especially in the U.S: I felt that people just saw the country as a mess that no outside help could deal with. I found it very hard to engage peoples’ support in spite of (or perhaps because of) our (British, U.S. and others) involvement in creating the conditions for such attacks to happen. You can read more about all of this in my previous posts if you’re interested, but my point is that it was very hard to get people in the West to empathise with innocent victims in a country they had not visited and didn’t understand, no matter how hard I tried to explain the issues in clear and simple ways: The Yezidis were peaceful people living straightforward lives and did nothing to provoke IS attacks other than not be muslims. But nobody knew who they were, so the support never came.

In my mind, having visited the camps, spoken to Yezidis, and feeling close to the people and land of Iraq and Kurdistan, those I was trying to help were no different to those who were attacked in Paris. I’m not saying that from my high horse – I’m saying that it was easy for me, having met these  people face to face, to feel as much compassion for them as I feel for the French people. So I completely agree with those who say that it’s easier to empathise with people and places that you can identify with or are familiar with. But I also think that there’s a moral responsibility to move beyond that immediate impulse and try to understand and show support and compassion for tragedies in places more foreign to us. Empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another – comes more easily to some, but it’s not simply an innate, inflexible personality attribute – it can be nurtured and developed.

My main argument for working on our capacity for empathy is that some of the greatest and most prolonged atrocities in history were permitted because ordinary people refused to empathise with those who were different; slavery, apartheid, the holocaust, segregation and discrimination in the U.S. We would all like to believe that if we were alive and present during those times, we would have been amongst the minority who fought against such gross injustices rather than tacitly or actively taking part in them. And yet as global atrocities and injustices are perpetrated around the world today, we are nearly all succumbing to what Douglas Adams in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy called the ‘Somebody Else’s Problem’ field. We say that we are too busy, or we don’t want to be depressed, or there’s nothing we can do to help, or we have nothing to do with these people – it’s somebody else’s problem.

And this brings me to my second argument for cross-border empathy. The global nature of our existence today means that we are far more interconnected. Through our vastly increased levels of consumption, our daily actions impact the lives of people all around the world. We have to be more aware of this. How can we ignore a factory collapse killing hundreds of innocent child workers in a far-off country when its our demand for cheap clothing that put them there in the first place? Or how about our oil-guzzling that has fuelled some of this century’s worst conflicts, including a war that caused instability in Iraq and the rise of IS/Daesh? Right now a global environmental, humanitarian and wildlife protection catastrophe is taking place in Indonesia, with its fires fuelled by palm oil plantations. It barely registers in the media and yet every one of us consuming palm oil in our daily lives holds a degree of responsibility for this.

The blog I referred to at the start implied that people’s feelings of sorrow were tied irrevocably to their ethnic/geographical/cultural identities. I don’t agree. I think that people are entirely capable of empathising more widely, as there are always aspects about other fellow humans with which we can identify. What is needed is a skilled and truly objective media to assist this, and we are nowhere near that. One positive example is Humans of New York. On their Facebook page I saw hundreds of thousands of people inspired to raise money for a woman who defended poor labourers in Pakistan after Brandon Stanton highlighted her work, where in the weeks before they were empathising with a homeless person on the streets of New York. Brandon’s work is helping people to go beyond their instinctive tribalism and focus on what we can all identify with in other people. And it doesn’t take much – just a photograph and a couple of paragraphs of words.

It can seem difficult, time-consuming and depressing to get caught up in all the world’s tragedies, and none of us are capable of having zero negative impact on the world, or to solve all its problems. But I think that it is possible, and more than that it is vital, for us to make more of an effort to show compassion and/or material support for at least some situations beyond our empathy comfort zone.

It doesn’t have to be difficult. There are many fantastic writers and campaigners out there who can help guide us on how to make a difference: Whether it’s to stop using a certain product and informing the manufacturer of why, or writing a letter to an MP, or signing a petition, or sharing an article on social media, the slightest actions can have big collective impact.

When I was trying to raise money to buy blankets for the Yezidi refugees, I met with a member of the British Government’s Department for International Development in Iraq. He told me that despite having earmarked several million pounds for the area, they couldn’t/wouldn’t give money to help refugees in the Kurdish region at that point because the media weren’t making enough of a fuss about it to persuade the politicians to support it – everybody was more worried about Ebola and there was public fatigue over Iraq. The money was there but he couldn’t use it until more British people showed that they cared what happened to the Yezidi refugees. Media, politicians, companies and charities all respond to the public, and that public is you. You might have more power than you think.

That, in a rather extended nutshell, is why I think that it’s important to make an effort to extend our empathy to those who may not immediately find it easy to identify with, but who need our support. There is always a way to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes.

If you were outraged by what happened in Paris and it made you want to help other innocent victims of IS/Daesh, one suggestion I have is to donate to the Rise Foundation winter campaign for Iraqi orphans.