Stuff is getting too predictable…
- Tragedy happens in a European country.
- People declare solidarity, mourn the tragedy, stand together, make grand gestures, etc.
- A few others declare “BUT WHAT ABOUT [X] and [Y]?!?” and “But you didn’t show this for another country further away!!”
- Another addition is “but we can care about more than one thing” noting that we do care about [X] and [Y] and showing solidarity with the local tragedy doesn’t say we can’t.
Those making point no.3 irk me. I can’t stand it. Do you really care? Are you really involved and deeply compassionate about those events? Or, are you just saying this to show off? “Look how much more knowledgeable I am than you!” It’s showing off. It’s nothing but self-serving mock-compassion to say that you’re better at it than everyone else. And that always annoys me – the kind of “I can feminist more than you” and “I’m better at atheisting than you” and “I can compassionate better than you!” showboating that comes across as crass asshattery.
Yes, point no.3 pisses me off, still does, and will probably continue for a while yet.
But this time around… I think I’m losing patience with point no.4, too. It’s been my go-to position for a while. “I can care about more than one thing” I’d say. But on close reflection it’s a lie. Did I really care?
No, honestly. I didn’t care. And I don’t now. I don’t know why, and I can’t quite figure it out. But I struggle to really care. I look at the news and shrug. I can say the words, but every time it feels more like a conditioned response. I don’t feel much. I’m starting to think compassion is, in fact, a zero-sum game. If I care more about Belgium I’ll care less about Yemen. If I care more about Yemen I’ll care less about Belgium. Or I can very superficially care about both, but I have to spread thinly over it. I can muster a brief “sigh” and a “isn’t the world shit?” and then move on with the frantic pace of life. “Shit, rapists are going free”, “damn, the Republicans are racist as fuck”, “wait, did the Conservatives just try to screw over the disabled again!?”
“PICK ME! PICK ME! PICK ME!!” each of these things squeal. And by the end of the day I’m left questioning whether I really do care. As in, care care. Yes, I acknowledge the existence of this Thing that has caught my attention… but I don’t feel anything for it.
Is that right, or wrong? Doesn’t really matter, I suppose, because it just is.
If I spent an equal amount of time caring equally about all tragedies, then one of three things would happen.
- One, I’d care very lightly and briefly about everything – putting up a “Prayfor[X]” template and moving on rapidly to the next thing, like a short-and-sweet”sorry to hear that, you’re all in my thoughts” before quickly moving back to some casual game and, quite literally, not having ever really put anyone in my thoughts for a considerable period of time.
- Or, two, it would take up all of my time. I’d have to care about everything, and that means research, and reading, and paying close attention to news. Not just major news; local news from every country, countless unknown blogs, and really trawling deep into the news from around the globe to get all of it. It would become a 24 hour job just to know what was out there and get enough information about it. I’d have no time for anything else. At best, I could last a week before going mad, torn apart by the sheer quantity of shit in the world to pay attention to.
- Or, the third possibility – the worst of both worlds would happen. It would take up all my time, send me mad and my care-factor would still be pathetically superficial across a limited sub-set of events. I’d use up all my feeling, my energy, my brain-space and my time just to write “I care about this!” a hundred times a day. But that’d be a lie because I wouldn’t care. And it’d be a lie that helps no-one, it wouldn’t even make me feel better – it’d be a lie to impress others. And at this point, they’d see through the charade. I feel this third option is the most likely result, too.
A global perspective is good. Definitely. I will endorse that forever. It gives us more information to play with. It lets us make more rational decisions by giving the broadest view. Yes, more Muslims have been killed by Daesh. Yes, that’s true. More attacks attributed to that quasi-state have happened outside of Europe than in, and caused more deaths by a clear, undeniable margin. The statistics are there like a Cochrane medical review and do not lie – but like a medical review I’m interested in the final stats and their significance to get my information and make a decision. It’s information. I can’t feel anything for every single tragic story that lies behind each one of those data points. I know it’s there, but I can’t deal with it. And I think anyone who tells you that they could is lying to sound impressive.
We care about things that are salient to us. We care more when a bomb goes off in a city 50 miles from us than 500 miles away; and more about one 500 miles away than 5,000 miles. We care more if one goes off in a city we’ve visited because we recognise that shop that’s now blown out in the background of a news report and think “I was just there a few weeks ago!” We care more if we know someone is living there because if they were hurt we might never see them again.
We care more when it’s someone close to us.
Did anyone else out there notice a student of mine died a few weeks ago? No, you didn’t. You didn’t stand in solidarity with my students, with my department, or with my university who lost someone they knew closely. You didn’t mop up tears of people as they came into a dry academic office, you didn’t have to re-organise exams and lab hours around a funeral. It had no salience and no impact on you, and you know it. You didn’t give a shit about that event. But get this – I absolutely wouldn’t expect you to. I almost don’t even want you to try and care. Don’t waste your sanity points on it; it won’t impress anyone except yourself. You have things closer to you to worry about.
Our compassion, our genuine mindful consideration, is a limited resource. And that’s because the alternatives are worse; superficial lies masquerading as caring, or insanity. So I’m not going to apologise for it any more. If something happens elsewhere in the world, it’s not that I don’t want to care, I quite literally can’t.