Shades of suffering

What human suffering can teach us about our empathy bias

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There’s been no shortage of opportunities for us to grieve lately, to wonder at the horrors of human violence and the destructive power of nature. From the shooting in Las Vegas to war in Syria, from the aftermath of Harvey in Texas to the plight in Puerto Rico, we’ve had no shortage of opportunities of late to practice our empathy.

But, as we look at and react to these incidents, whether they are man-made or natural, there is an uncomfortable but unavoidable aspect of our response here in the developed West that I think we must face: We have an empathy bias. We are much less passionate in our empathy and outrage when those suffering do not look, believe and live like us.

The brutal truth of this is nothing new, but was made painfully clear this weekend with the terrorist bombing in Mogadishu. On Saturday night a truck bomb packed with military-grade explosives ripped through a crowded square, killing more than 300 and wounding at least another 300. It was, by some measures, one of the worst terrorist attacks worldwide since 9/11 — though by no means the worst.

It doesn’t take exhaustive quantitative research to uncover the difference in our reaction to attacks like the one in Mogadishu this weekend and those that have occurred in our recent past in Europe. The attacks in France — at Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan Theater in 2015 and Nice in 2016 — along with the more recent attacks in Manchester and Barcelona are seared in popular memory.

The blood had not congealed in those attacks before social media was flooded with memes expressing how much we were standing with the victims, politicians clamored for the nearest podium to express their outrage and public buildings were bathed in the colors of the victims’ nation. All of these expressions of empathy and outrage are fitting, if expressed in sincerity. These acts of violence were appalling, and deserved our condemnation and tears.

But, what of Mogadishu? And before that, what of the 2014 Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria that claimed at least 336? The 2004 loss of 385 children and teachers at the Beslan School in Chechnya? The series of attacks in Iraq in 2013 that claimed nearly 2,000? The loss of almost 3,000 Yazidis in Iraq in 2007?

Don’t get me wrong: these attacks all were reported in the media. The attack in Mogadishu has been well-covered. But the coverage of these attacks — the ones in the developing, poor and predominantly Muslim world — has not been pervasive and related at a human level in the way we’ve covered attacks such as those in Paris and Barcelona. I’ve yet to see a single “I stand with Mogadishu” profile picture overlay. And, I’m ashamed to admit, I had to look up those attacks in the developing world in the last paragraph, and they are only a few of the examples of such attacks which have happened in recent years.

Why do we have this disproportionate outpouring of compassion for victims in Europe and America, compared to, well, anywhere else? It’s certainly not due to the scale of the attacks. To be clear, any attack is abhorrent, and to the victim of a small attack the loss is every bit as real and cataclysmic as a loss incurred in a much larger attack. But, if we were to compare the sheer numbers since 9/11, those suffered in the developing world — both in the individual incidents and in their grim sum — have been far greater than those suffered in Europe. According to multiple sources, including the U.S. National Counter-Terrorism Center, the vast majority of victim fatalities due to terrorism have been Muslim. Differing sources place that margin between 82 percent and as high as 97 percent.

So, again, we must ask ourselves: Why the disparity in our attention, outrage and empathy to these incidents? Social scientists could spend millions in grant money to ponder that question, but I think the answer is dismally obvious. Put simply, the victims in places like Mogadishu are darker, poorer and far more likely to be of another faith than our cousins in England, France and Spain.

The real question, then, isn’t why this happens. The real question is what does this mean for us as a society? And for those of us who profess faith in Christ, what does this mean for our faith? On both counts I think we must admit to ourselves that when we indulge in our empathy bias we are something less than we’d wish to be — something less than the ideals we profess.

As Americans we proclaim that “all men are created equal.” As Christians we profess that we all are created in the image of God, and in the Body of Christ “there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” Yet, when our brothers and sisters in the developing world suffer calamity, we are conspicuously unequal in the passion of our response.

This propensity to identify more-closely with those more like us is not new. It is based in the depths of the human experience, and has been at the root of our many wars, massacres and recurring episodes of genocide. And, unfortunately, the pitting of the elect against the dreaded “they” has become the defining characteristic of our political discourse of late.

Perhaps, then, we should not be surprised that we have an empathy bias, and that our bias affects our policies, our thoughts and our fears. But, surprised or not, whether we want to admit it or not, this is a barrier we must overcome. Until we stop measuring out our empathy and Christian love based on how much the victims look, live and believe like us, we will continue to fall short of our ideals. Until we accept violence as universally abhorrent, regardless of the socioeconomic, religious and racial characteristics of the victims, we will continue to sow seeds of hatred, division and terror.

We can, and should, pray for an end to this violence. But, until we embrace all our neighbors in equal love and empathy, I fear we pray in vain.

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