This weekend was a strange time to spend hours on social media promoting something as apparently light-hearted as a charity ball. Each time I logged on to Facebook to check for updates and queries, it became harder to distinguish who was “liking” and commenting as profile pictures morphed en masse to the red, white and blue of the French flag. This morning I had time to look more closely, and amidst the tricolors and photographs of the Eiffel tower there were other comments, querying why the victims of this attack were being mourned when those of others don’t even make the news.
I would like to write something pious to the effect that we don’t value some human lives more than others, but it wouldn’t be true. I would like to be able to write something learned about how we are programmed to ascribe a greater value to the faces that look like ours, the crowds we could imagine ourselves within, the streets that we know we could walk unnoticed, but I don’t have the wisdom. We may not be proud of the fact, but I don’t know how we learn to override that something deep within ourselves that feels a visceral tug of fear beyond human sympathy when we can substitute ourselves for the victims of a particular horror.
I was thinking today, though, about this failure to protest carnage equally. About the sad but resigned acceptance of some brutal outrage in a country distant from ours, while the same – or less, if tragedy can be measured like rain – closer to home provokes an apparently spontaneous outpouring of grief and solidarity. That we take it as for granted that bad things will happen in certain parts of the world is no less shameful for being true. Our ignorance and prejudice and a colonial kind of assumption of superiority doubtless play a large part in this, but for some of us so too, perhaps, do the events of the past few decades in Europe.
Growing up I felt, may God forgive me, a sense of living in an era post-history. Each November brought the carefully instructed memorials of the war to end all wars (and of the one after that). We learned about the Holocaust as a one-off, a lesson scored in blood and human agony into the DNA of our continent and never to be repeated. The Berlin Wall fell, apartheid ended, and the prospect of nuclear annihilation seemed to shrink away, as news bulletins reported regularly on the progress of peace processes.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to suggest that what we had, for that brief period of time, was anything like utopia; nor that it would have been even if the stubborn, ugly existence of deprivation, discrimination and injustice, had not continued to provide plentiful material for those seeking to make the world better. But I think that there was a sense, for most people, that we were at least getting there. That we were on the path to something worth having. That in a world where so many problems seemed to have been solved, there was a hope that others were solvable.
Perhaps when we focus on horror closer to home and ignore reports of it further afield (and we do, often, ignore it) there is something more at play than a chauvinistic disregard for the Other. Perhaps we sense that our simplistic, subconscious understanding of the world is being challenged; that maybe we’re not engaged in a linear pattern of development and improvement after all.