November 17, 2015

Stop Shaming People In Their Sorrow.

With the tragedy in Paris and the outpouring of grief from the West has unfolded this standard pattern of discourse:
  1. Westerners are shocked at what has happened in a sister Western country.
  2. Westerners express their grief and sadness at what has happened.
  3. Other people shame them for expressing their grief because there are so many other tragedies for which there have not been  equal outpourings of grief and sadness.
There are three main reasons why Westerners react with visceral sorrow for Paris, but less so for the other recent tragedies:
  1. Violence in many parts of the world, such as Beirut, is normal. We hear about acts of terrorism and violence every day in places like Beirut and Israel, and have been for decades now. Our brain circuitry is hard-wired to be shocked by new stimuli and information, but then to develop a tolerance to it so that repeated exposure doesn’t elicit the same intense reaction. This is a basic survival mechanism. If for every stimulus we experienced, we experienced the same intense reaction at every exposure that we did at our first, we would not survive because the simple act of daily living would overwhelm us.

    The type of shooting in Paris is shocking precisely because it is new. 

    From my own perspective, I’m not at all content with violence being the norm in places like Beirut. But I’ve sadly become numb to it now. It seems like it will never end. So years ago, I stopped getting emotionally invested in the violence there because it was too much. I am only human, after all.

    Normalization of mass shootings has also happened in the USA. It's why people were affected for years by the 1999 Columbine high school shooting, but not really so much by the recent Umpqua Community College shooting in Roseburg, Oregon.
  2. Locality of reference. Westerners are closer culturally and politically to countries like France and the UK. Like it or not, it’s our human hard-wired tribalism at work. “Locality of reference” applies here because Westerners all share common cultural roots and references. It is profoundly naive to say, “But we’re all one big human family, all tragedies should affect us equally!” While yes, that would be ideal, it’s not the way humans work fundamentally.

    Saying this is similar to the obliviousness in the phrase, “I don’t see colour!” when talking about racism. When people say, “I don’t see colour!” what they’re saying is, “I WON’T see colour!” - as in, they want to avoid the difficulty of getting elbow-deep into the dirt of understanding racism by instead using shallow platitudes.

    So when people say “We’re all one big human family!” they are denying the reality of how humans are wired and work in the real world, and are washing their hands of the necessary work needed to understand the reality of the world, and why things are the way they are.
  3. The meaning of the Paris attacks. Westerners live in relative peace within their borders. And now that a shooting like Paris’ happened, we all feel like it could happen anywhere in the West. But it's not just Westerners who feel this way.

    The West is, for a lot of people in the world, a beacon of hope for having a peaceful life. A lot of people who live in war-torn countries look to the West and think, “If I could just make it to Canada, or the US, or the UK… I could have peace in my life finally. I could live without worrying about getting bombed when I try to get food for my family at the grocery store.” Why do you think my parents and so many other Sri Lankans came to the West?

    Now that the Paris shooting has happening, it seems like there is nowhere on the planet where there is any hope of peace.

    It's why you see even people in Beirut showing France's colours. Places like Paris are a beacon of hope for people who live in violence every day. Paris provided a vision of how things could be. Now that vision has been shattered - and so that's why even Beirutians mourn for Paris. 

    I can't imagine how my parents dreams for a peaceful life would have been crushed had there been a mass shooting in Canada around the time they were deciding to emigrate to Canada back in the 70s.
So when Westerners are viscerally sad and feeling grief for Paris, but not so overtly for Beirut, it’s not because Westerners are racist and value Middle Eastern lives less. It’s because it is not normal for a Western city like Paris to have this type of ideological violence occur, and other Western countries are our sister countries so we feel closer to them.

When trying to bring awareness to Westerners of the violence in Beirut, I’ve seen a lot of status updates like this:

I understand the sentiment and the outrage, but here is how such a status update actually reads to other people:

Shaming people for feeling perfectly natural and understandable grief given how they are naturally wired while indirectly claiming haughty moral superiority will only serve to alienate people from your message.

Instead, try something like this:

The above status update is informative, validates what people are feeling, and positively encourages them to feel solidarity with their cousin nations.

It’s an invitation to engage rather than a harsh criticism laced with self-righteousness.

You will NEVER win people over by telling them how shitty you think they are, no matter how right you might be.