Bad stuff happens everywhere. I don’t mean “bad stuff” like getting in a fender bender. Or even really bad stuff like your Internet crapping out in the middle of streaming your seventh consecutive episode of This Is How To Get Away With A Million Little Scandals With The Stars: Miami.
No, I’m talking about Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse-level bad stuff.
Famine. Earthquakes. AIDS. Hurricanes. Wildfires. Tsunamis. Cholera. Drought. Mudslides. Tornadoes. Terrorism. Ebola. Mass shootings. War.
Because we in the United States live thousands of miles (literally and figuratively) from the “third world,” stories of these occurrences tend to barely make the chyron scrolling across the bottom of our 4K QLED TV screens. Even our national trademark—gun violence—only occupies our nation’s attention for a few hours in the wake of the biggest incidents. Plenty more shootings barely make the nightly news. But each time a massacre happens, the gruesome news fades into the background as soon as something crazier happens.
Because you’re a forward-thinking, bias-challenging, modern-living, hyphen-overusing person, I’ve got a challenge for you:
Peel away from the average American’s usual news sources (read: Facebook) and take a look at Al Jazeera or BBC World News sometime. Or use any other reputable journalistic source. Get to a news outlet where stories are written, accurately and without censorship, on subjects other than American politics, sports, and entertainment.
You’ll quickly confirm that bad stuff abounds.
I’m writing this in November 2018, and here is a sampling of the dismal stories unfolding around the world:
- Israeli jets are bombing Gaza, killing numerous Palestinians.
- A suicide bomber killed himself and several protesters in Kabul.
- Fighting is easing in Yemen after 149 people were killed in the last 24 hours.
- An arsonist killed 10 boys and injured many more at a school in Uganda.
- A Mexican congresswoman’s 22-year-old daughter was killed by a gang last Thursday.
- A mudslide in Brazil killed 10 people last Saturday.
That’s just a few of the tragic events happening beyond our borders.
I’m a fairly well educated American. To quote the President of the United States, “I have a very good brain.” My significant other works in international development and public health, which means I routinely hear about the happenings of far-flung countries. I actually know people from other countries. That alone separates me from most of the population of Mississippi.
Hey, I said most, so if you were about to fire off a mean comment straight from the 50th best state in overall health, please calm down before you get the vapors. I wasn’t talking about you specifically, Buford. Besides, “the vapors” isn’t covered by insurance…which you don’t have, incidentally. Insurance, I mean. I don’t know if you have the vapors. Diagnosing you from afar would be unethical.
While I knew of the overarching conflicts in Israel, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Mexico, I didn’t know about any of the above-listed events until five minutes ago.
I am privileged to live a life that allows me to operate, if I so choose, above the bottom levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. That privilege also means I can live without experiencing, or even knowing, most of the gory reality of life for most of mankind.
Like most of my countrymen, I am generally safe from war, famine, and disease. I rarely miss a meal, which makes it amazing that I only weigh 239 pounds, according to a doctor I paid to say that. No warring factions are going to launch a rocket into my condo. I rarely get sick. When I do, I see a doctor and get better without much worry or expense. There are no IEDs on the road I take to work. Clean water is readily available, though I choose to subsist on Diet Pepsi and Red Bull.
When you combine (1) our nation’s massive win on the cosmic lotto tickets we stole, (2) our geographic isolation from much of the world, and (3) our mass media’s slant toward local and national stories, it is foreseeable that Americans won’t know much about the rest of the world.
When you add in the human tendency to reserve empathy for individuals, it becomes probable that some of the American population won’t care much about the rest of the world, either.
Now, sprinkle a few dashes of nationalism, colonialism, a sick need to win at others’ expense, whataboutism, education funding based on property taxes, otherism, and the prosperity gospel. Together, it’s all but guaranteed that many Americans will wholeheartedly discount the suffering of the rest of the world.
We’ll knowingly ignore the real pain of real people.
We’ll scramble for the remote control when disturbing news sneaks in between hard-hitting stories about Donald Trump and Kim Kardashian-West.
We’ll blame civilians for living in war zones, even if those war zones were previously known as “neighborhoods.” We’ll then blame the civilians for fleeing those war zones, too.
We’ll question their courage and intelligence for not overthrowing their brutal government.
We’ll chalk up the deaths of children as “collateral damage.”
And worst of all, we’ll convince ourselves that the pain those people are suffering is somehow not as real as it would be if it happened to us.
Any suggestion that we expand our empathy and humanity will be met with scoffing and angry derision from a sizable chunk of the population. You’ll hear the same cold clichés and worn-out reasoning for shrugging through inaction. Americans are world-class professionals at turning the other cheek…away from things we don’t want to see.
Prepare yourself for all the hits, such as:
“Those people have been at war for a thousand years.”
“That is just how they do things over there.”
“It’s their own government’s fault – if the people want it different, they have to change the way their country is run.”
“They build all their da*ned huts right on the water and then wonder why they get hit with tsunamis and hurricanes.”
“If they’d stop having twelve kids each, they’d probably be able to manage their food and water supply a little better.”
“Half the people over there are gang members and criminals anyway.”
“There’s a way to escape those issues, but people have to follow the laws.”
“We’ve been giving those countries billions of dollars for decades now, and they just waste it. Nothing changes. We should be using that money here instead.”
“The news just shows you the crying mother. They don’t show you the hundreds of other mothers that are chucking Molotov cocktails at the police.”
“They kill each other all the time over there. Life just doesn’t matter to them the way it matters to us.”
Act now, and we’ll even throw in some really despicable stuff…after we glance around to make sure there aren’t any foreigners around to hear us. Call right now and we’ll apply these same justifications to “others” in truly mysterious places like Detroit, Chicago, and Cleveland!
Notwithstanding the ugliness of flippantly rejecting actual human tragedy, these reactions are somewhat understandable. After all, we generally don’t know the people we see crying on our smartphone screens. Often, we don’t speak their languages. We know an infinitesimal amount about the situations underway in their countries…or Detroit, for that matter. And we’re overloaded with our own problems, both personal and national.
Sure, we can theorize what watching your own children starve to death would feel like. But our reality is too far removed to really feel their pain. It’s insanely hard to truly empathize with people with whom we have so little in common.
However, the very act of proffering justification for our lack of empathy indicates something deeper at work:
We know that we’re supposed to care.
We naturally feel bad about not caring.
Think about this:
Almost no one spends time debating the morality of killing household pests with chemical sprays. We don’t argue en masse over negative impact boat propellers have on fish.
Yet people don’t justify their lack of concern about bugs or occasional minced mackerels. Matter of fact as it may be, insects and animals die as part of humanity’s successful existence on this planet. No doubt, there are outliers who valiantly fight those realities, but the overwhelming majority of the human race simply does not care.
And more to the point at hand, most humans do not feel bad about not caring. Not even a little bit. It doesn’t even occur to us that we should feel any way about such issues.
But for some reason, people who loudly discount the plight of Yemeni children, for example, feel compelled to justify their aggressive apathy. After all, “those damned Arabs have been killing each other since before the Crusades.”
Despite their angry, dismissive facade, they absolutely know they’re supposed to care about their fellow humans. They know instinctively that empathy is part of the social contract.
Now, by making the assertion that “they’re supposed to care,” the same people who trot out all of the reasons for not caring will accuse me of virtue signaling. That is, they’ll accuse me of looking down from my ivory tower, telling the unwashed masses what they should care about. Besides hygiene, which they should start with. Filthy masses.
Lately, there are a lot of influencers out there with decidedly nationalist agendas. They’ve always been around, they just ebb and flow in their distance from the margins of society. They’re quite loud lately, and creeping closer to the mainstream. And those influencers are really crafty.
This time, they’ve cleverly jumped ahead of appeals to natural empathy for others. They cast things like, well, “an appeal to empathy for others” as a predictable, condescending play from the liberal playbook.
You’re right to be angry at the world – look how it’s treated you! (conveniently ignores America’s status as the most prosperous nation in the entire history of humankind).
And you’re right to prioritize our country over everything else. Don’t be surprised when bleeding heart idiots give you a sob story and try to make you feel bad for loving America. Their “virtues” aren’t American; they’re SOCIALIST. They want to take your hard-earned money and give it to immigrants and minorities. They’ll keep it up until the immigrants are the majority and YOU’RE the minority. It’s a scam, but you’re wise to their scheme now.
Cult leaders do the same thing. They tell their newbies something patently ridiculous. Then, they warn them:
When you tell others outside of our brotherhood about our beliefs, mark my words: they’ll tell you you’re crazy. When they tell you that you’re crazy for believing the true story we’ve shared with you, that’s your sign that it must really be the truth.
So, when you go out and tell people, “the world is going to end when a giant cheese wheel rolls down the mountain on July 3, 2019, just as the prophets of yore foretold!” people indeed tell you you’re crazy.
And you think, “Oh my Holy Cheese Maker, the leader was right!”
The leader wasn’t “right,” other than correctly predicting that telling people this idiotic story would cause them to naturally conclude that you are an idiot. So, he leveraged that obvious truth to his advantage, deepening your commitment to the “cause” via predictable human reactions.
Likewise, the voices that warn people against virtue signaling aren’t “right.” They just correctly predict that when you blame innocent victims and pretend their suffering isn’t real, normal people are going to think you’re a terrible person.
When that prediction comes true, the influencers know you’ll get defensive and, luckily for them, even more convinced your awful point of view is correct. You’ll become more adamant that it’s the person challenging your lack of empathy who is wrong.
And that virtue signaling socialist cuck is not just wrong – he’s bad for America itself. He’s the real problem.
All the while, the influencers win more of your views, clicks, shares, tacky hat purchases, super PAC donations, and ultimately, votes. Crafty, indeed.
This is my humble request to you, as your unsolicited logician, unlicensed therapist, and unapologetic bleeding heart friend:
If you’re already generally empathetic to your fellow human, recognize that your geographic and media isolation prevents you from seeing most of the bad stuff. Your bandwidth prevents even more.
Challenge that reality. Read from sources you don’t normally see. You can’t fix everything, but you can learn about what’s happening outside your own borders. The more of us who care, the more chances there will be to influence public policy toward justice. It’s far from automatic or turnkey, but it’s a start.
If you’ve ever found yourself justifying why you’re right to not care about what’s happening to real human beings, ask yourself why you feel compelled to justify your stance. If it is normal and right to dismiss human suffering as glibly as you would the deaths of insects or animals, why justify it? Why would you need to defend feeling normal and right? Why have you already internalized the idea that most people will think you’re wrong, even before they say anything?
Chances are, buried deep beneath your jaded exterior, the reality of this planet breaks your heart. That’s okay. It should. It doesn’t mean you support “open borders” or whatever other straw man our leaders throw out to confuse the issue.
It just means you care.
Bad stuff happens, and it sucks. It’s awful. There’s no honest justification for the hell visited upon our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world. We don’t know exactly how to stop it, but we care. We care about them and are open to ideas as to how we can help.
For all the ways people can disagree, we have that in common.
Previously published here and reprinted with the author’s permission.
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