What We Say When We Try to Say Sorry

On Friday afternoon, I took a short scroll through my Twitter account to check the latest news. I was about to close my laptop and head to the gym when the headlines about the Paris attacks began to appear.

In the days following, I have scrolled past dozens of profile pictures overlaid with the French flag. Facebook notified me that a high school classmate now studying in Paris was unharmed via the “safety check” feature. I have seen countless repostings of the Eiffel Tower/peace sign graphic. I listened as President Obama and other world leaders denounced the attacks and watched as monuments around the world lit up in French colors. I went to check my bank account today, and the home page features the Eiffel Tower instead of its usual Bay Bridge or Golden Gate. I read friends’ sympathetic messages concluding in #PrayforParis and then other posts questioning why nobody had much to say the day before when Beirut had experienced a similarly horrific terrorist attack.

It‘s easy to blame our ignorance on the media. It’s not that we don’t care; it’s that we didn’t know we were supposed to care. Max Fisher of Vox questions if we can hold the media accountable for our lack of awareness when mainstream sources such as the New York Times, Washington Post, AP, CNN, and more covered the story in Beirut. I read the news every day, multiple times a day. It’s the first thing I do every morning after grumpily turning off my alarm. Somehow, I did not learn of the bombings in Beirut until after I had heard about Paris.

I was angry with myself for missing the story about Beirut. But as I monitored the TV screens in front of my treadmill on Friday, I watched various channels break the story about the attacks in Paris and track the death count. Most of the channels broadcast the same live camera from a Parisian street. Just one day earlier, I was on the same treadmill, and none of these channels mentioned Beirut. The question is not if our media reports on non-Western happenings, but to what depth and frequency.

Though commonly known as an economist, Adam Smith was also a moral philosopher. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he writes about the capacity of human beings to feel sympathy. A key parable from Moral Sentiments describes a European man’s hypothetical reaction to losing one of his own fingers versus his reaction to learning of an earthquake that kills millions in China. Smith concludes that the man would be devastated by the loss of his finger. However, while he might take a moment to contemplate the disaster in China and express his sorrow, ultimately the earthquake would fade from his thoughts, and he would return to his life “as if no such accident had happened.”

For Smith, sympathy is spatial. We will naturally care more for the people closer to us, be that closeness of relationship, closeness of distance, or closeness of history and culture. By his logic, the Western world will naturally react with more sympathy to an attack on another Western country. It doesn’t mean everyone posting #PrayforParis feels nothing for Beirut but that they cannot help feeling more for Paris.

I know a few people living in France currently. I know dozens more who have visited Paris. There are fifty-three students from my alma mater currently studying abroad in Paris, as did two of my college roommates during our junior year. Paris is one of the most visited cities on the planet, a city with international influence, and a city perceived to be safe. I have never been to Lebanon, though I have been within miles of the Israeli-Lebanese border, and I don’t know a single person currently living there. Paris hit me, too, a bit closer to home.

And maybe that’s okay, so long as we educate ourselves about the events in Beirut and elsewhere and that we invest ourselves in aiding all countries equally. Maybe that’s okay, so long as we do not blatantly overlook devastation in places that we value less. Whatever we feel, whatever our gut reaction, whatever our proclivities to sympathize more with people like us, we need to translate our thoughts into unbiased actions.

Did you change your profile picture to the French flag? Did you change it because you have been to Paris? Did you change it because Facebook said you could and you thought “sure, why not?” Did you change it because all your other friends seemed to be changing theirs?

Would you have changed your profile picture to the Lebanese flag? Did you wonder why there was no Lebanese flag option? Did you even know that Daesh had also attacked Beirut? Did you know that Beirut is the capital and largest city of Lebanon?

I wonder why I can’t find a Lebanese flag option or why we need a French flag option at all. I am unsure how a profile picture helps the people of France. It’s not spreading awareness, since with the media overload, I doubt anyone in the US remains unaware of the attacks at this point. In my case, it wouldn’t be for support, since I have no friends who are French natives to view my supposedly supportive gesture. I also don’t have the energy to change my profile picture every time something devastating happens. If that were the case, I would need a new picture every day. I won’t be adding the French flag to my profile picture because it strikes me as slacktivism and clicktivism, a way to pat ourselves on the back for being engaged, while simultaneously revealing how unengaged we actually are. I can feel solidarity without having to prove it online.

In Adam Smith’s parable, he also asks if this man would choose to sacrifice his finger if his action would save all of the Chinese earthquake victims. Now, I don’t expect anyone to start chopping off their fingers, but there are some steps we can take that go farther than profile pictures. Let’s request our governments to accept more of the refugees currently fleeing the region. So far, the United States has admitted under 2,200. Let’s complain when the media is blatant in its bias. Let’s acknowledge our own biases. Let’s not torture ourselves for not sympathizing enough or shame our friends for whatever sympathy they feel. And let’s make a commitment to educate ourselves about other attacks.

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On Entering the Internet Slush Pile

In the publishing industry, the slush pile is the infamous, bottomless vat of manuscripts to which an aspiring writer sends off his or her query letter to be read and, most likely, quickly discarded by an over-caffeinated, underpaid assistant. The slush pile haunts me like an ever-present ghost laughing quietly in my ear as I stare at the pulsing black curser on the blank, white Word document. The pile is both the genie who just might grant my wish and the siren calling sweetly to give up more of my words, time, and sanity.

Ironically, I decided to start a blog and send my writing out into the even more immense, intangible slush pile called the Internet. Maintaining a blog feels a bit like speaking aloud in an open, empty expanse—until you realize that the hum you mistook for nothingness is actually the drone of millions of voices talking at and over and down and past one another.

The sheer immensity of the Internet is astounding, incomprehensible. According to one estimate, if we printed out all our online content, we would need as many as 305.5 billion sheets of paper. Even if that number is off, let’s not kid ourselves, the Internet is massive, and we’re never going to read all of it.

There is so much information out there, so many websites to discover, so many videos to watch, and so many other blogs to read. I know this, so it’s hard to decipher why I want to add my voice—no matter how honest and thoughtful and articulate I find it to be—to the noise that will quickly surround and muffle it.

As an American, I was raised on Cinderella stories, on the notion that with enough effort I could become whatever I wanted. While grown-up (sort of) Gelsey no longer aspires to be a ballerina, I still choose to believe that with enough perseverance I can shape myself into anything I want. At times, I find myself unable to write, cowering behind a fear that nothing I say will be enough to change anything or touch anyone. I’m not looking for world fame or a Nobel Prize in Literature. I just want to leave a few footprints on someone’s thoughts. Sometimes, even that seems impossible.

With the Internet and social media, we are now our own fairy godmothers. All it takes is a computer, and with relative ease, you too can become a blogger, Youtuber, or Instagram model. That only seems to make the fairy tale more insurmountable.

But it’s the 21st century, and I don’t believe in genies, ghosts, and fairy godmothers. I believe in words, and I’m going to try to leave behind some footprints.

Welcome to my little piece of the Internet slush pile.