Tuesday, April 16, 2013

“We are all Bostonians”: Thoughts on Appropriating Empathy


Yesterday, the nation was shocked by the tragic events of the bombing at the Boston Marathon. Two bombs were detonated near the finish line, apparently timed to injure the greatest amount of people. Naturally, social networks are aflutter with condolences, support, conspiracy theories, admonishments, and clicktavism. Between things like Patton Oswalt's uplifting note on the goodness of humanity, and the immediate dissemination of services like Google Person Finder to locate loved ones, I have to say: We have come pretty far since 9/11, and I'm rather proud of that fact.

I want to comment, though, on the adversarial nature of some social media users. I have observed two types: those that shut down conspiracy theorists in their tracks and those that cry out for equal empathy for foreign tragedies. The former gives me joy. It is a sign that more and more people are finally getting tired of Alex Jones and Mike Adams. It is a sign (though singular and weak), that we might be heading toward a more rational (or at least reasonable) social consciousness. The latter, on the other hand, I cannot abide.

It is true: Many people die in bombings outside of the United States on a regular basis. It is terrible and tragic, and I blame centuries of colonialism and empire-building for their loss. There are entire populations that live in fear that any day could be their last; we absolutely take our safety for granted. And it is true: Many Americans are not globally aware of the goings-on in such communities. Even if they do catch the title of an article in the back pages of the newspaper or on the margin of a news website, they will not think that it’s “news.” I agree that these are lamentable realities, and I too wish that Americans had the same kind of empathy for the humans who face the threat of this kind of violence every day.

However, that said, this will never happen. Ever. The bombing in Boston targeted Americans  (and non-Americans) gathered to participate in an event of (global) camaraderie in one of America’s oldest cities. We identify with the victims and their families in ways that we will never identify with those that live in daily fear. We hold many of the same values, share the same beliefs and language, and are governed by the same laws. It could have been any one of us; an indiscriminate attack on those people as a means to attack an idea is thus an attack on anyone else who identifies with that idea. I am absolutely not the most patriotic person I know – in fact, I find patriotism quite silly – but bombs don’t care what you or I believe. As they say, “It’s the thought that counts.”

Furthermore, when someone suggests that there is a global injustice when Americans don’t react to foreign bombings the same way, what you are really saying is: “My daily knowledge of global affairs is superior to your ability to grieve in the here and now.” Get over yourself. We can have empathy for the victims of violence - political, structural, or even natural - but we don’t have to be insensitive about it.