Compassion for the (white) world: Whose lives matter?

What happened in France was an atrocity. Yet, it was met with a rousing chorus of sympathy and compassion from around the world. And rightly so. The death and fear inflicted on a nation in an act of terrorism is unfathomable. In the wake of the news, I was speechless. What can you say? How can you express such profound, heartfelt sorrow? What if you don’t know how to feel?

Then more news arrived.

A day prior, an attack reportedly by ISIS was carried out in the Lebanese city of Beirut. At least 41 people were killed in the bombing, and a further 200+ wounded. The next day, another attack was carried out. It was at a funeral in Baghdad. At least 17 people were killed and 33 injured. I didn’t know about each of these bombings before I heard about Paris. In fact, I only learned about them through friends more informed (and some more affected) than I. But this is exactly my point: why was I aware of Paris before Beirut or Baghdad? Where is Australia’s solidarity with Lebanon and Iraq? Where are my emotional attachments? Should (or do) I care?

Here, I’d like to echo Judith Butler’s sentiment about whose lives “matter”. That is, what occasions us to become concerned with the lives of other people? Who do we cease to care about? And most importantly, how do we make the distinction between whose lives deserve attention and whose do not? In an interview earlier this year on the “black lives matter” and countering “all lives matter” U.S. campaigns, Butler writes:

What is implied by this statement [black lives matter], a statement that should be obviously true, but apparently is not? If black lives do not matter, then they are not really regarded as lives, since a life is supposed to matter. So what we see is that some lives matter more than others, that some lives matter so much that they need to be protected at all costs, and that other lives matter less, or not at all. And when that becomes the situation, then the lives that do not matter so much, or do not matter at all, can be killed or lost, can be exposed to conditions of destitution, and there is no concern, or even worse, that is regarded as the way it is supposed to be.

Although this passage speaks to something very different than terrorism, I can’t help but feel the underlying question — whose lives matter? — is relevant to this recent string of international atrocities. What messages are tacitly endorsed by our selective anger, support, and reporting?

The world stands in solidarity with the people of France.

In light of the recent attacks on Paris, in light of the ongoing sentiments of support for Parisians, and in light of the resounding silence in response to the attacks on Beirut and Baghdad — what I would call blatant Eurocentrism — one must ask, whose lives matter here? I am not at all dismissing the devastation experienced in Paris. After all, the message here is that all lives matter. But does our silence on these bombings in Eastern countries imply that they are “regarded as the way it is supposed to be”? Or do we just not care as much unless a Western country is affected? Either conclusion is profoundly terrifying.

Under what conditions do we extend our sympathy and support to others? An “empathy gap” or “emotional proximity” have been terms used to justify the West’s apathetic response to the East in the aftermath of these heinous acts. It implies we have a degree of attachment to Paris that we don’t have to Beirut and Baghdad, and I find that to be a most peculiar claim. Not least of all because we’re a multicultural nation.

So, continuing with Butler’s sentiments, I’m mulling over a few ethical dilemmas:

(1) How do our emotional attachments with people and nations form? And, how might that attachment be defined? 

(2) Do lives matter less when we have no emotional attachment to them? For instance, does the death of a stranger mean less?

(3) Can — or should — we extend compassion to lives we have no emotional attachment to? If not, is that apathy ethical?

Of course, we shouldn’t be expected to be emotionally invested in everything and everyone to the same extent; that’s not what’s being challenged here. (Though, imagine what that world would look like.)

Instead, what’s being challenged are the actions we might take in response to those emotions, or lack thereof, given our awareness of the situation. Emotions needn’t dictate actions; we are capable of challenging our own irrational thoughts, and of questioning our own conduct. We can abstain from violence, even when our blood boils. We can question our own sexism and homophobia if its ugly head unexpectedly emerges. We can show compassion towards someone in need, even if they’ve wronged us in the past. Humans are amazingly complex and smart creatures; we aren’t always bound to our immediate reactions, and our emotions in and by themselves don’t justify our conduct. I literally remind myself of this all the time. It is both an exhausting and empowering process. And it is what I’m trying to encourage with the article.

Selective journalism at both national and international scales is nothing new, but whose lives matter enough to warrant recognition and compassion? As has been iterated time and time again, the threat is international, and the risk not equally shared amongst us; it’s part of the reason people have fled and continue to flee their homes, seeking refugee status with countries like Australia. But when compassion for those affected by terrorism seemingly extends only to those “whitest” victims, we’ve much to think about. That thinking might begin with identifying the larger political, economic and racially charged agenda underpinning our Eurocentric response to this crisis. We might think about how that agenda is manifest in other facets of our cultural, social and political lives.

The world is reeling, and the wounds still fresh. We’re gathering our thoughts, many sorting through grief. Accordingly, these aren’t intended to be accusatory views, merely reflective ones.


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