Chances are you or someone you care about changed their Facebook profile or the hashtags #PrayforParis and #JeSuisParisian to show support for the victims of the horrific attacks on Paris last Friday. It was a global show of compassion, empowered by the Internet, that revealed humanity at its best.
Naturally, an army of critics used the opportunity to make everyone who shared their grief feel like awful jerks. The day before, an ISIS bomb in Beirut killed 43. “Where was the Lebanese flag filter?” they asked smugly, implying those who mourned Paris valued Arab lives less.
Seriously, why are we only talking about Paris? What about Beirut? What about Baghdad?
— Richard Juan (@richardjuan) November 15, 2015
But what about Beirut? For once whataboutery is good. It's great. People tweeting, searching for news, papers headlining, pressurizing FB.
— Rituparna Chatterjee (@MasalaBai) November 15, 2015
This is a gross oversimplification and crass accusation. That so many people from around the world felt an immediate impulse to show solidarity with a nation so brutally and mortally wounded demonstrates humankind’s capacity for deep and abiding empathy. The fact that Beirut didn’t get a similar reaction is troubling—but given the complexities of our psyches and the war on terror, it’s regrettably understandable, and it presents a teachable moment for how we can all become better global citizens.
We know Beirut mostly through the news—and it’s always bad news.
In 2011, 3.3 million American tourists alone visited France, while a staggering 17 million Brits cross the English Channel each year. Many of us have walked down the Rue de la Paix, or placed a love lock on the Pont des Arts. I spend a lot of time in Europe. It’s a continent I know well. I can imagine what it would look like to have my glass of wine in a Parisian cafe interrupted by gunfire, and it scares me.
By contrast, in 2010, only a total of 2 million tourists visited Lebanon. Personally, I don’t know anyone who has been to Lebanon, and I’m willing to wager most Westerners don’t either. Most people probably can’t even find it on a map.
This “empathy gap” explains why Westerners grieved for Paris more than Beirut. Human beings are hard-wired to feel greater empathy toward people we perceive to be more like us, Emma Seppälä, a psychologist at Stanford University, told the Huffington Post. “Many people have been to Paris,” she said. “We can picture ourselves there. There are many reasons why we can feel an affinity for Paris—it’s much more similar to us than Beirut in many ways.”
This disconnect, in part, likely explains why Facebook decided to turn on its Safety Check feature for Paris but not for Beirut. “During an ongoing crisis, like war or epidemic, Safety Check in its current form is not that useful for people … it’s impossible to know when someone is truly ‘safe’” in those circumstances, a company spokesperson noted in an official post, explaining its decision to use the feature in Paris and not Beirut.
That statement ignores that Beirut has experienced years of relative calm. Beirut is a cosmopolitan city, once known as the “Paris of the Middle East.” It’s a reputation well-earned. “The beauties of everyday life–the smell of fresh bread from a bakery, the laughter of children on their way to schools, lovers sitting in a cafe–don’t define Beirut’s image in the West the way they do for a city like Paris,” Beirut-based journalist Annia Ciezadlo wrote for the Washington Post.
The Beirut bombing became less about the 43 people killed and more about the self-righteous wielding it as evidence of their moral superiority.
The problem, as Ciezadlo puts it, is in the way we talk about Beirut. It’s not a city; it’s a warzone. We know Beirut mostly through the news—and it’s always bad news.
But while it may not be as safe as London or New York, it’s far from Kandahar. The 2014 Global Terrorism Index ranked Lebanon 14th for terrorist activity. This seems startling, but the country actually ranks behind such popular Western tourist destinations as Thailand and the Philippines. In fact, this was the city’s deadliest suicide attack since 1990.
A Lebanese life matters just as much as a French life. But humans tend to find humanity firstly in those who remind us of ourselves. It’s the law of proximity: We grieve our loved ones more than our neighbors, and our neighbors more than a stranger. For many of us, Lebanon is a stranger. France is a friend. We see Paris in everything from Woody Allen films to Adele music videos, which reinforce our views of Paris as the “city of love.”
It’s not surprising, then, that the social media uproar over the Beirut bombing was less about the actual bombing and more about concern-trolls chiding everyone for not caring more about the bombing. As Vox’s Max Fisher points out, a wide array of media outlets—from CNN to the Economist to even Britain’s Daily Mail—covered the Beirut bombing before the Paris attack. It wasn’t new news when it began circulating on Twitter and Facebook. What was new, however, was that so many people suddenly cared. The Beirut bombing, at least on social media, became less about the 43 people killed and more about the self-righteous wielding it as evidence of their moral superiority.
Simply scolding people for ignoring Beirut while mourning Paris isn’t just condescending—it’s counterproductive. The problem isn’t that people don’t care about Beirut. It’s that they don’t know Beirut.
The empathy gap is an explanation, not an excuse.
But we don’t have to go somewhere for it to feel familiar. Instead of offering reproach to those who mourn the attacks in France, perhaps we should offer to broaden their horizons. Follow foreign news outlets and share their work on social media. Instead of skipping over the foreign film section on Netflix, browse it and find something that interests you. Listen to a K-pop song. If we can enjoy “La Vie en Rose” without speaking French, we can enjoy other songs in other languages, too. Talk to immigrants and refugees, and learn their stories. These are all the ways we’ve established empathy for France, and they can work for other countries, too.
The empathy gap is an explanation, not an excuse. It helps explain why we might feel the Paris tragedy deeper than the events in Beirut. But policing expressions of solidarity and grief won’t help solve that problem. We have to overcome the empathy gap; we have to become better global citizens, if only online.
Skylar Baker-Jordan is a Chicago-based essayist, commentator, and journalist writing about masculinity, the LGBT community, and U.K. politics.
Photo via Meg Chang/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)