Lu: Selfish in our Sympathy

by Jessica Lu | 3/4/15 7:36pm

To the right of each newsfeed, Facebook’s relatively new feature, the “trending” sidebar, displays the current most discussed events and people on the website. More often than not, they seem to be fluff pieces, something akin to Taylor Swift becoming a godmother or Kim Kardashian showing off her assets. Rarely have I seen more serious, sobering events — particularly news from overseas — crack the top three stories.

The discomfort of discussing topics like international terrorist groups, human rights violations and the kidnapping and rapes of thousands of young girls may be the reason these stories are rarely “trending.” Yet it’s disturbing if we find the first picture of Alicia Key’s baby more important than raising awareness of the plight of Nigerian girls suffering at the hands of Boko Haram.

It seems this bias is a sign of a national obsession with ourselves. If something isn’t within our borders or doesn’t otherwise threaten our bubble, then it appears that we simply don’t care.

There are, of course, exceptions. International tragedies caused by cruel twists of fate often trigger a national outpouring of sympathy. When Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing in March 2014, a multinational coalition supported an extensive search operation while data from Google Trends indicate that peak search interest in MH370 dwarfed that of Boko Haram at a ratio of 25 to three. It seems to me that our readiness to discuss these events is because it’s not a stretch to think — “Wow, that could’ve been me.”

When a tragedy is caused by calculated human cruelty rather than chance — something like the crimes of Boko Haram — it doesn’t seem to hold our attention.

For a short span of time, #bringbackourgirls — a hashtag raising awareness for more than 200 girls kidnapped from a Nigerian school last April — went viral but soon faded away. Those girls still aren’t free, and they’ve been joined by hundreds of other young prisoners since. Last month Boko Haram attacked the Nigerian town of Maiduguri, imprisoning 450 girls to take for forced marriages and other purposes. Boko Haram — a group that has violently asserted control over territory in Nigeria — regularly threatens Nigerians, and it seems the American public rarely bats an eye.

This might suggest that we simply prefer ignoring how cruel humans can be. Yet we teach the Holocaust in schools to condemn the murderers and remember the victims. So is it, perhaps, that we’ll get bored of hearing yet another “Boko Haram captured a Nigerian town” story? I find that hard to believe when MH370 dominated airwaves for weeks — with coverage fueled not by any new information but rather speculative scenarios.

Boko Haram is an Islamist militant group waging a campaign of terror in Nigeria, killing and abusing thousands. Is our national sense of empathy so narrow that we don’t pay attention to situations that don’t affect us directly?

I strongly believe this is the case, and that we only care about the plight of others when it could be our own. Boko Haram arguably rivals the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, in its cruelty. The Islamic State, however, has killed American citizens, and it dominates the news media and demands government action. Conversely, Boko Haram’s predominant focus on Nigeria distances us from the group’s violence, and many don’t seem to care much at all. Similarly, Syria’s civil war and the horrific human rights violations under the Assad regime have seemingly lost their appeal as headlines — hardly a surprise when the U.S. doesn’t have any boots on the ground.

We often pay more attention to a relatively small number of casualties in a shocking bus accident than we do to the deaths of thousands in Nigeria. Leonardo DiCaprio’s newest film seems to mean more to us than young girls forced into sexual servitude. We’re willing to talk at length about transportation accidents in Asia and European plights but keep silent about a systemic and ongoing campaign of terror in Africa.

We need to reevaluate how much time we spend sharing useless memes on social media — helping people in need is more important than a color-shifting dress. We also need to reevaluate how we direct our attention and aid. We shouldn’t help people in distress just because we think the same thing could happen to us. We should help because it’s the right thing to do.

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