The Shape of Our Caring
On September 2, 2015, the body of a five-year-old Syrian boy named Alan Kurdi was photographed face down on a Turkish beach. This one image seemed to capture the world’s attention and galvanize efforts to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis. The crisis itself wasn’t new—it had been a growing reality for at least three years prior to that photo. Alan Kurdi wasn’t the only five-year-old boy to die in an attempt to cross the Mediterranean—he was and is, sadly, one of many. In many ways, Alan Kurdi’s story was tragically ordinary in a world where tragedy is ordinary. But it became extraordinary in the response to that one image.
I’ve reflected often, since September 2, 2015, on the shape our caring takes in an online world where news and images and stories spread like wildfire. What has the capacity to grab our collective attention and what doesn’t? Why do some images lead to a global outpouring of response while others receive little more than a yawn while we click on to the next shiny online object? Which stories provoke outrage and online expressions of solidarity and which sit silently in the corner? Which flags does Facebook give its users the option of draping their profile pictures in and which ones flap forlornly in the unnoticed and unacknowledged breeze?
These are questions I ask not just of the collective “we” but also of myself. Why did I spend hours scanning the Internet for minute-by-minute updates during terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels but not during the one in Kabul this week? Why is there no Ecuador flag for me to brand my social media self with this week after over five hundred people were killed in an earthquake there? Why does the killing of forty women, children, and men in northern Syria this week barely register on my radar? Why isn’t social media aflame with “Pray for Ethiopia” entreaties given the present drought crisis, not to mention the attacks that killed over two hundred people last week and the capture of over one hundred children as hostages? Why does the death of five hundred refugees—five hundred!—trying to cross from Libya to Italy make only a brief appearance on the front pages of most news sites? Five hundred. That’s four hundred and ninety nine more than a boy on a beach…
Is it because these tragedies emanate from places with names that are harder to pronounce than “Paris” or “Brussels?” Is it because there are no heartbreaking images of children to grab us by the collective throat? It is because lives from some parts of the world—places where people are more like “us”—seem to matter more than lives from other, more desperate parts of the world? Do we see words like “Afghanistan” and “Ethiopia” and just say something like—not out loud, of course!—well, there’s always terrible stuff happening over there… Do we just care less about some places and people than others? Why, in short, is my/our caring so unevenly distributed?
I don’t have many nice, tidy answers here. I’m asking these questions of myself, as much as anyone else. And I’m certainly not suggesting that we need more Facebook flags and “pray for ____” badges and lightly informed slacktivism. God help us that would be intolerable! And of course it’s silly (and quite likely offensive, on some level) to create hierarchies of tragedy in order to more satisfactorily calibrate our responses. We can only mentally process so much suffering and sadness, after all. Our resources—emotional, physical, spiritual—are finite. Compassion fatigue is a real thing in a world where we are consistently exposed to more human misery than any other people at any other point in history. I’m not saying, “unless we express our compassion/outrage/advocacy for all people and all causes and all suffering in equal measure we are somehow failing as human beings.” Not at all.
But I do think that our social location gives us the unsettling option of becoming consumers of tragedy. We are daily presented with innumerable options to brand ourselves with innumerable causes and crises, and it’s easy to be led around by the nose and allow our compassion/outrage/advocacy to be dictated by the reflexive reactions of the online herd. I know this is true for me. There’s so much to care about, and so comparatively little of me to go around. How will I apportion my care and concern and action? A little bit of Syria today and the plight of Palestinians tomorrow and the intolerable situation of indigenous Canadians next week and the plain old unexciting poor and needy people that have always been around my town the week after that? It’s easy to just flit around amidst the wreckage, dropping down from time to time for an inspiring story or a feel good moment, but how and where to drop down? Maybe I need a spreadsheet. Or, perhaps Facebook could conveniently tell me what I should care about each week with a flag or some other visible marker that I could brand myself with (preferably early Tuesday morning, because I take Mondays off). They already do this with birthdays, right?
This probably sounds cynical or depressing. Or worse. It’s kind of long on critique and short on solutions. I know. As I’ve said, I’m writing to myself as much as anyone else here. And I don’t have many solutions. This is the world we live in. This is the world in which we are called to do some good, to try to love our neighbours as ourselves. One thing I am convinced of is that whatever else the general picture sketched above ought not to do is lead to paralysis or inaction. We are all called to do something. Even if we don’t have the hard drive space to extend our compassion to the four corners of the wind, we can extend it across the street. The fact that it’s hard to know where our caring ought to start and stop is no excuse to not care at all.
And the fact that our social context primes us to turn everything—even the suffering of others—into a product to be consumed and pressed into the service of the rolling curation of our online identities is no excuse to do so. Maybe at the end of it all the most radical and helpful thing we could do, however and wherever we extend our caring in the world, is to simply be a bit quieter about it.