Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
Increasingly, I find myself frustrated by the lack of empathy shown towards others, and having discussed this several times over the last week, I felt compelled to write about it.
The last year has seen several examples of media propelled hysteria over photographs, which show the suffering of others. A picture showing the body of a little boy washed up on a beach near the tourist town of Bodrum in Turkey caused global outrage. Suddenly, people around the world were made extremely uncomfortable at the thought of little boys being killed as they sought to escape poverty and violence. This outrage only intensified as the identity of three year old Alan Kurdi became known, and more details of his family’s struggle to escape war torn Syria were revealed. How could we stand by and allow the suffering of refugees after seeing this picture? Didn’t we have a moral obligation to help those in such need?
Some countries pledged to take refugees from Syria, and other countries, to help with the explosion in human suffering. Many individual citizens sought to raise money, aid supplies and awareness of those who continued to fear for the lives of themselves and their families. However, the images of little Alan soon disappeared from our television screens, from our newspapers and from our minds! Crucially, the refugee crisis did not disappear.
Thereafter, the horrific attacks in Paris, Brussels and Istanbul took centre stage. They showed the worst side of humanity; the ability to indiscriminately kill innocent people, and threaten the democracies in which we live. Even as the events unfolded and the world came to terms with the horrific reality that these types of attack could occur anywhere, the trajectory of our empathy, as directed by the media, became clear.
While television and newspaper reports rightly highlighted how horrific these events were, they subsequently turned their focus to the suffering of those closest to home; British people caught up in the attacks. Although presumably illustrating the threat to British citizens at home and abroad, it arguably focused upon what we have in common with those caught up in the attacks; nationality. It is something that happens after any international event; tsunamis, earthquakes, plane crashes, terrorist atrocities…
Indeed, it is telling that our television screens and newspaper headlines largely focus on those events closer to home, instead of the over 900 terror attacks which have occurred since the beginning of 2016.
The aftermath of the European Referendum has provided another example of society highlighting the differences between citizens, instead of what should unite them; global citizenship. It has made me uneasy at the route we are taking globally, we shouldn’t need an element of shared suffering or vested interest before feeling empathy.
Having spoken to others involved with human rights research we collectively agree to feeling uneasy at the route some strands of humanity seem to be taking. No longer are we focused primarily on what unites us, but instead many are obsessed by what separates us; primarily country of origin, race and religion.
While I am not suggesting that we should all walk around feeling the weight of everyone else’s troubles upon our shoulders, it would be great if we were all aware of the struggles of others and willing to put ourselves in their shoes long enough to feel empathy. Empathy is a powerful emotion, and it is one that I currently value above almost any other.
The challenge, for those of us who want to campaign for the rights of others, is to continue to do so, even when the media is not highlighting the issue, or others deem our fight to be insignificant. The morality of rights is clear and important to those of us fighting for them. We need to use our shared enthusiasm to fight for rights. While their struggle may not be particularly newsworthy today, that does not mean that our commitment to highlighting their plight or defending their rights does not go on; their struggle is our struggle. Those dedicated to improving the rights of others, and ensuring parity between citizens should work together, now more that ever. Together we can work towards global citizenship and a sense of empathy, even if it is one person at a time!
Unity is something that is called for in times of terror, violence and disharmony in society, but is is something which should be promoted at all times, not as a last resort.