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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