By Ijeoma Oluo
Last week, the world was shocked by the horrific attacks in Paris. The largest attacks in France since WWII, we were shocked to see that multiple attacks of such scale could hit the metropolitan West. There was panic as people tried to find out information about loved ones, there was grief as people watched a city that has meant so much to so many rocked by terror. But almost as soon as there was grief and shock, there was also critique.
Some of this was opportunistic garbage — “Don’t the students marching to end racism on the University of Missouri campus feel silly about their complaints when people are dying in France?” — but much of it was valid: Why do we care about attacks in Paris, but not in Beirut? Why didn’t Facebook make solidarity profile flags for any countries other than France? Why are we so focused on the Paris attacks when black men are being terrorized by cops in the U.S. every day?
Questions of why certain hardships affect us more than others should be addressed, and not so that we can all feel guilty or score more sadness points than our Facebook friends. These are good questions because the disparate empathy we feel for different tragedies around the world actually affects global policy.
We care about the attacks in Paris because we care about Paris — and not just as an empty platitude, like when we say we care about “All Lives”; we care about Paris the way we care about a neighbor or friend. We learn about the French Revolution in school, we share many common words, we vacation in France, we exchange history, fashion, art and food. We care about Paris because we’ve cultivated a relationship with Paris.
While our response to Paris is thus understandable, we must not take this to mean only Paris is worthy of friendship and solidarity. On the contrary, our reaction reveals how narrowly we’ve defined our sense of community, how little we’ve used our empathy.
We could have been caring about Lebanon before the attacks in Beirut. To do so would have opened us up to so much — its rich culture, its amazing food, its wondrous literature (Kahil Gibran anyone?), its vibrant art scene, its gorgeous nature. We could have been getting to know the Lebanese people. We also could have seen how our policies in the Middle East were affecting them.
We could have cared about black lives before the last two years’ focus on police brutality. We could have been appreciating the rich, resilient culture of Black America, we could have been investing in the futures of our black youth, we could have been addressing income inequality and joblessness, we could have been increasing our representation of black people in media and entertainment. We could have been reforming our criminal justice system before Michael Brown was shot. We could have been addressing racism on campus before the Mizzou protests.
And, yes, that would mean that when a black man or woman or child was shot dead in the street we’d feel the pain more acutely. That would mean we’d experience more shock and sadness and fear at the attacks in Beirut. That is the downside of opening your heart to people: the risk of being hurt when they are hurt, scared when they are scared. We would all hold our kids a little tighter, regardless of their skin color. But we would also demand lasting, structural change, and, eventually, we’d lose fewer people we love.
I know that this seems like a lot to ask. I know that in this unpredictable, violent world, it’s impossible to keep up on everything that’s happening everywhere. But we must not underestimate our ability to be moved by multiple injustices at once. And when we find ourselves in a situation with multiple attacks happening in different places, and we find ourselves caring more about some than others, it is an opportunity, however heartbreaking, to realize that we can care more. Our empathy, if it has limits, hasn’t come close to being tested yet.
Right now there are Syrian refugees who, having watched loved ones be killed before their eyes, are still helping their friends and neighbors stay safe. Right now there are Parisians who survived last week’s devastating attacks, yet are reminding us to reach out to our Muslim neighbors in love, not hate. Right now there shopkeepers in Northern Nigeria picking through rubble, trying to put their community center back together while planning funerals for those lost in recent bombings.
These people are out there, living the terror and heartbreak that we see in the news, without the ability to turn off their computer and focus on something else, without the ability to change the channel. They are surviving and grieving and yet still loving and living.
The least we can do is open our hearts to the beauty and joy of those who at first seem so distant from us, and open our hearts to pain when they are harmed. Our hearts are big enough to accommodate both the love and the sorrow. And as our sense of community and family grows, so too will our ability to solve these complex issues together, to help prevent these horrible events in Paris, Beiruit, Nigeria, Iraq and elsewhere around the world from happening again.
It’s not too late to start caring.
Ijeoma Oluo is a Writer, Speaker and Internet Yeller. She’s Editor At Large at The Establishment and a columnist at Seattle Globalist.