Empathy, humanity, and the deaths of strangers


Mourners react during a funeral of a victim who was killed in a suicide car bomb in the Karrada shopping area in Baghdad, during the funeral in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Iraq, July 3, 2016.

Mourners react during a funeral of a victim who was killed in a suicide car bomb in the Karrada shopping area in Baghdad, during the funeral in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Iraq, July 3, 2016.

JOHANNESBURG - More than a billion people across the world have just observed a month of fasting as part of a religious observance of faith.  It ended with the most unholy acts of violence, the victims those who had just completed prayers and were enjoying the kinds of activities those of us lucky enough to live in relatively peaceful places take for granted: quotidian daily activities, catching up with relatives and friends, chatting to neighbours, shopping, taking their children for a walk, being ordinary people in extraordinary times and places.

Death tolls.  Butcher’s bills.  Casualty figures.  Flags at half-mast.  Scenes of faces distorted with grief, grainy footage of carnage.  And numbers that increase daily.  These are scenes that play out across television screens, and our eyes dart across reports of these in newspapers and on news websites.  Some of us avert our eyes, the horror constituting something to confront, but also something that threatens to overwhelm.  Events far away appear on screens sometimes as close as thirty centimetres or fewer from your face, on a device in the palm of your hand.

All too regularly, now, one thinks of South African singer Laurika Rauch’s ‘Hot Gates’ (1995), for its captivating and simple insistence on connecting humanity across time and space by a list of places well-known for being the sites of human pain, with places known for such violations only by those who live in them.  Also, in these days of death and fury, one recalls the words of the Canadian poet Margaret Atwood:

[…] The world becomes
one huge deep vowel of horror,
while behind those mildewed flags, the slogans
that always rhyme with dead,
sit a few old guys making money.

Our humanity, though, depends on not looking away.  History is littered with the horrors humanity visited on one another because too many folks chose to look away.  Some of us are survivors of such cataclysms.  Some of us are the descendants of people who escaped those horrors, sometimes barely, and their endurance, luck, and foresight have become part of who we are.  Still, what we choose to look at, and what we choose to look away from say much about who we are, about who we imagine ourselves to be, and where we draw the lines of inclusion and exclusion in the Venn diagram for ‘people like us’. 

The responses to the post-millennial terror attacks in the cities of Europe and the United States have often elicited great outpourings of solidarity and expressions of empathy from people across the globe.  More recently, many have used social media platforms to signal their mourning with the people of Paris and Brussels.  They draped their profile photographs with the flags of those countries affected by the attacks.  When the Pulse attack left scores dead in Orlando, Florida, the rainbow flag was used to demonstrate solidarity with the LGBTQI communities devastated by the loss.  Anderson Cooper read the names of those who had been killed by way of eulogy, but also, to remind us that those who were killed were full human beings, with complex lives.  They had names, they had loved ones; they were essentially like us, so that it was easy to imagine they were us, the ultimate test of one’s recognition of another person’s humanity.

The responses to the horrors engulfing people across southwest Asia, and in North- and West Africa, have been nowhere near as immediate or elaborate.  And even between those less well-remembered and less spectacularly marked outrages, there have been hierarchies and axes of difference which revealed levels of investment, as well as length and depth of professions of outrage, empathy, and pain. 

Our slow, even belated response to the crimes committed against the young women of Chibok, Nigeria, even and especially in places like South Africa, was revealing.  We repeated the reticence when the people of West Africa were plunged into crisis as a result of the Ebola outbreak.  As South African professionals rushed to the scene to help, the South African public kept a cool distance from the unfolding terror visited upon our continental brothers and sisters by an invisible and poorly understood pathogen.  We did not eulogise their names, and only later did we begin, inadequately, to make the dances of mourning the Guyanese poet Grace Nichols invoked for the slaughtered millions of the Atlantic Middle Passage.

Compare the swift responses by many in South Africa to the outrageous events of Paris and Brussels.  That the people of Beirut, the men, women and children of Yemen and Libya had had to deal with similar and even more outrageous violations and terrors, and for longer, seem to matter little, was often not even known about.  The flags of the countries they lived and died in did not become signs of solidarity from geographically distant people.  As for the horror visited upon the people of Gaza: our collective comparative silence marks our shame.

And now our responses to the frightening numbers of victims in Dhaka, Baghdad, and Medina, once again reveal much about ourselves.  It is less terror fatigue than it is selective outpourings of solidarity and empathy, those political values by which we define one another’s as well as our own humanity.  These expressions of fellow-feeling are not merely sentimental gestures: they are also a profound realisation of the humanity of the people who express them, in whatever awkward, inadequate, limited form.  Its presence on some occasions, and its absence on others, reveal unpalatable truths about those who display such responses than they do about the events they ostensibly respond to.

In his book White (1997), the scholar and critic Richard Dyer suggests that ‘[r]acial imagery is central to the organisation of the modern world. At what cost regions and countries export their goods, whose voices are listened to at international gatherings, who bombs and who is bombed ... these are all largely inextricable from racial imagery.  The myriad minute decisions that constitute the practices of the world are at every point informed by judgements about people’s capacities and worth, judgements based on what they look like, where they come from, how they speak, what they eat, that is, racial judgement.  Race is not the only factor governing these things and people of goodwill everywhere struggle to overcome the prejudices and barriers of race, but it is never not a factor, never not in play.’

It is time to examine our responses to the pain of others as we regard them, to invoke Susan Sontag.  The speed with which we empathise, the length, depth and substance of our expressions, and the publicity with which we demonstrate our fellow-feelings of outrage, mourning, or pain, tell us something about ourselves, whose lives we value, and by what hierarchies and axes of difference we choose to identify ‘people like us’.

Grief cannot be prescribed.  But if we want to affirm the humanity of others among this vulnerable species we all belong to, Homo sapiens sapiens in precarity, flickering briefly in this moment in the long sweep of geological time, we need to reflect on what our selections reveal about us.  Regardless of how or even whether you pray, what food prohibitions and dietary laws you live by, whether you are fleeing conflicts started by your relatives, or the war visited upon your house from distant spaces by young people operating equipment like they are playing a computer game, humanity is something all 7.9 billion of us ought to have the same title to.

All of us together, or none of us at all, whether we are to survive or to perish: if empathy is to have any real political consequence, we ought to begin thus.