From Facebook to The Times, the comment section arguments are relentless. Islam, immigration, and terrorism are the trio of topics that trigger the wildfire of differing opinions on every online news story into a full-scale nuclear meltdown.
I’m not going to repeat the arguments that either side constantly fire off at each other; considering The Yuppie’s presence is most heavy on social media, I think it’s safe to assume that most readers will already be overly familiar with them; and, in any case, they are not the point of this article.
Rather than opinions and ideas, I want to attempt to, as objectively as possible, discuss changes in sympathies and perceptions in reaction to major events regarding this trio of topics, which seem to have a penchant for quickly going viral on social media.
One of the general criticisms often heard with regards to human sympathy is that people tend not to care about the many thousands of people dying in various conflicts and attacks in the Middle East, and are far more sympathetic when attacks take place in areas which are culturally closer (Europe and the U.S.). There have been criticisms in the past of standard Western platforms de-humanising different cultures, thus leading to people caring less.
A sense of Orientalism in a manner, we only hear news of violence from areas such as Syria, and as such we unconsciously apply a filter of violence to the area and see it as the norm, and thus become de-sensitised to it. When an act of violence takes place in an area such as Paris, it’s an interruption to the ideas we have of a place we already have some knowledge of. There is the de-stabilisation of a norm, and that makes a difference in our reaction. If the norm from the Middle East is violence, then a new act of violence no longer seems new to us. The norm was recently de-stabilised in the Middle East however, when reports of a chemical attack came in. A new, illegal, indiscriminate attack against civilians was a new type of violence, and hence prompted a new type of response.
Returning to the previously mentioned criticisms of Western platforms; I wouldn’t talk about better or worse, but I can’t deny that there are some differences in how cases such as these are handled. With news organisations, you’ll notice that (especially due to legal issues in the West), graphics images of dead bodies are more likely to be shown of victims of violence, or the aftermath of it, in the Middle East. In the case of Western media, interviews with witnesses or officials are a more common coverage. With social media, the French flag filter for profile pictures comes to mind.
In their own way however, these differences are a breeding ground for public sympathy with their culturally foreign counterparts. While the dead body of a Western victim wouldn’t be shown on Western media, it was the photo of the body of Alan Kurdi that suddenly prompted a mass outpouring of support for refugees, from individuals as well as governments. With regards to social media, profile filters weren’t provided; but there was a show of support from many people who changed their profile pictures to a plain yellow square to show solidarity with victims of the recent chemical attack in Syria, as well as other images being shared, such as one illustrating children being hoisted into the sky by toxic balloons against a chemical yellow background (seen below).
Perceptions are most divided when it comes to attacks on home soil, spreading divisiveness among some and nothing but acceptance among others. The biggest solidarity and empathy though are always towards those who preach acceptance. After the 2014 Paris attacks, few events stuck in memory more than the open letter by Antoine Leiris preaching that the attackers that killed his wife would never have his or his son’s hatred and that “responding to hatred with anger would be giving in to the same ignorance that made you what you are.”
It does seem that we do still have a tendency to value our cultural compatriots more than the lives of people trapped far away, even closer to the centre of the violence. While definitely not justified, it is understandable, that we can resonate more with victims with lives more similar to our own. However, mass outpourings of support do happen, and I’m confident that momentum from these can push us further into the re-humanisation of culturally distanced populations.
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