In the wake of last week’s horrific attacks in Paris, a scolding narrative has taken hold in certain corners of the internet: The fact that the incident received blanket media coverage, but a suicide bombing in Beirut that killed 43 and occurred a day prior didn’t, proves that — depending on whom you ask — Americans are racist, members of the media are racist, Americans don’t care about the Middle East, or any one of a number of other theses pointing to a moral failing on the part of those who have expressed, as the critics tell it, the improper ratio of outrage and grief over Paris as compared to Beirut.
Here are a couple of representative tweets:
(As Max Fisher pointed out, that’s actually a photo from 2006.)
A conga line of think pieces followed as well. One of the more impressive examples of the subgenre appeared in The Independent. “Got a French flag on your Facebook profile picture?” asked the headline. “Congratulations on your corporate white supremacy.” The author, Lulu Nunn, quickly explained why the flag-posters are doing the wrong thing:
So you want to show solidarity with France – specifically, with those killed in Paris this weekend. If you’re a British person who wants to do that because you feel sympathy and sadness for people who are brutally massacred, regardless of their nationality, then fine. I just hope that you also change your profile picture to a different country’s flag every time people are wrongly killed as the result of international conflicts – for example, during the attack on Beirut in Lebanon just the day before.
Articles by Fisher and Jill Filipovic have nicely added some nuance to this debate, pointing out that, given the many, many articles that were in fact written about the Beirut bombing, it isn’t right to say the media ignored it. It’s more accurate, they argue, to say that readers were much more engaged by, and much more likely to share, content about Paris than about Beirut.
The question of whether it’s the media or its audience that is to blame for the (possibly fictitious) coverage gap is interesting for a number of reasons. But from a human-behavior standpoint, more interesting is the model of the “proper” response to death and destruction posited by Kohn, Nunn, and others.
In short, they seem to be saying that it’s offensive when:
-People don’t respond equally, with the same amount of shock and grief, to tragedies that are more surprising, given their location, than ones that are less surprising, given their location. (Political violence is fairly common in Lebanon and has been for decades; notwithstanding the disturbing recent trajectory, it is not common in Paris.)
-People don’t respond equally, with the same amount of shock and grief, to tragedies that victimize people who are more “similar to” them than people who are “dissimilar” to them. (There are important cultural and historical connections between the U.S. and Paris that add weight to the notion that the French are more similar to us than the Lebanese.)
-People don’t respond equally, with the same amount of shock and grief, to tragedies occurring in places to which they feel more connected as opposed to less connected. (Americans, for a million reasons, are more likely to be more familiar with and feel more warmly toward Paris than Beirut, and they’re more likely to have traveled there.)
Is this realistic? Humans are always using shortcuts to make sense of the world around them, because without these shortcuts we’d drown in information overload; every time we heard tragic news we’d collapse in a heap, inconsolable from trying to comprehend the full weight of a single human life lost, which is an impossible thing to really do. So yes, people respond more viscerally to events that are new and unexpected, and to events that affect people “like us,” whoever the “us” in question is.
The mistake is to assume that any of this is unique to “the media” or to “Americans” or to “privileged” people. Everybody does it — everybody carves up the world in similarly predictable ways, albeit with the boundaries drawn differently. It’s silly to shame people for this, especially at a time when everyone’s just doing the best they can to make sense of a series of awful events.