Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Why Do We Care, Or Not?



Now, let's be honest.  Which one of these incidents did you instantly recognize?  Which ones did you say, "Wait, where did that happen?"

"Where did that happen," is often our instant reaction to bad news.  And, on the whole, that's not an unreasonable question.  If there is a major earthquake at my parents' house, for example, I really would like to know that (and it would really be big news, since major earthquakes are not frequent in Massachusetts).  It seems straightforward and understandable that we want to know whether people we know and love may be in trouble.

If you don't have any relatives or friends in, say, California or Indonesia, for example, why do you care where today's earthquake was?  But you probably do.  There are two explanations for this phenomenon, one more palatable than the other.

The first explanation is that you simply are trying to reassure yourself that not only are your loved ones safe, but that something like this will not happen to you or your loved ones in the future.  An earthquake in California makes us feel, somewhat irrationally, like an earthquake in Massachusetts is more likely.  Certainly a hostage siege in a school in California makes us worry about security in American schools.

The second explanation, which is a little harder to swallow, is that this is not actually about location, but about "alikeness."  When things happen to people "like us" it makes us feel less safe -- and less compassionate -- than when they happen to people who we think are not "like us."  On some level, we even come to imagine that events that would absolutely devastate anyone in this country are not so upsetting to people elsewhere, particularly in non-European, non-prosperous countries.  Somehow, "they" must be used to it.  We may not say these things out loud, or even think them consciously, but they resonate with us.  Call it racism, call it xenophobia, call it American self-centeredness, but we just do not care nearly as much about trauma that happens in other parts of the world.
  • Today's earthquake was in Indonesia.  It's not even the top story on CNN as of 12:30 this afternoon.  Imagine what the coverage would be if it were in California.
  • The genocide in Darfur, Sudan, is something we know about but which gets next to no daily coverage, nor most people's attention, in this country.
  • The factories in China have been shut down until they comply with safety standards.  It's not a "top story" in this country.
  • The siege in Beslan, Russia, caught our attention as it was happening and quickly faded from memory.
  • Imagine what the coverage would be of Jaycee Lee Dugard's story if she were in Senegal, or China, or Belize.  Imagine what it would be if she were African-American. 
Distancing ourselves from tragedy is a natural survival mechanism.  Sometimes, unfortunately, we do it at the expense of recognizing the value of other human beings.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at www.SchoolCrisisConsultant.com
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