It started after the first recent major terror attack on Paris. The Charlie Hebdo attack.
My social media timelines were riddled with slogans and memes of “Je Suis Charlie”. The phrase was a hashtag, it was a slogan, it was a prayer.
“Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) quickly became a way to identify with the victims of the attack. It was a way of saying that those who died could have been any of us; the dead cartoonists could have been our fathers, our uncles, our brothers.
So I retweeted. I shared the memes and stared at the photos of friends and relatives mourning their dead and holding vigils. I even read some of the stories about the amazing lives of the now dead men.
My heart was moved by the images and the stories. “Je suis Charlie” was more than a slogan. It was a rallying call against terrorism. It was a mark of human solidarity in the face of the worst of humanity.
But I cannot say the same for Haiti.
I first learnt about the devastating hurricane by accident. A friend who was visiting the country when the hurricane struck shared the news in a Whatsapp group.
Later on I saw the news headlines on CNN and the New York Times. More than 800 dead. Tens of thousands of homes destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of people displaced.
These are big numbers. But for some reason, they are just that, numbers. They don’t evoke any deep sympathy or grief in me. I don’t feel the compulsion to retweet the headlines when they show up on my Twitter timeline.
Why is this? Am I a hypocrite? Does my callousness in the face of such tragedy reveal something base about my heart? Or is there more happening here?
I think I have a theory. Just one among many out there.
There’s more to this phenomenon, and it has very little to do with me or my morality, and a lot to do with how stories are told.
Joseph Stalin, the man whose regime was behind the death of some 43 million people, famously said:
“The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.”
Stalin was onto something that has intrigued psychologists for decades. It is the curious case of diminishing compassion as the number of victims increases. It is as if we experience a “compassion fatigue” when the numbers are overwhelming. You may find numerous studies on this on the web, so I will not be going into it here.
But something happens when you put a name and a face to tragedy. It narrows your focus and at the same time magnifies your compassion. The death of one hardworking father of a two year old girl seems bigger than the death of a hundred faceless men.
And this is what is happening with Haiti. We have the numbers but not the names. Furthermore, the fact that this is a natural disaster and not an act of terror dilutes the passions.
It is easy to rage and rant at the human face of a terrorist. But who is crazy enough to lift fist at the weather?
The only thing that’s closest to a human face in the wake of the Haiti tragedy is not even a face, but a name, Matthew.
Matthew is the name of the hurricane. Some 11 years ago, hurricane Katrina swept over North Eastern United States and devastated homes and lives. The story was a bit more prominent than the Haiti one, mainly because it brought to surface the racial and class wars in America. These are perennially emotional issues.
Even so, it was nothing close to the emotions sparked by the 9/11 terror attack. Which brings to mind another important aspect in the Haitian tragedy. Haiti is a voiceless nation on the theater of global conversations. Few people care what Haiti has to say about anything. The country is only good for photo ops as a charity case.
It is where celebrities and corporations refine their images by going there to “help the victims”. Haiti is every Public Relations strategist’s goldmine. It also makes for a great topic for social commentaries… like this post.
That is why the recent devastation by hurricane Matthew has evoked a now all too familiar protest on social media. You may have already come across posts of complaints about why Facebook has not allowed users to put on the Haitian flag on their profile pages.
Ironically, there are more people complaining about the fact that the Haiti disaster is not getting enough coverage than the people actually covering the disaster. Few media organisations have bothered to interview possible faces of the tragedy.
We are content with the numbers. We have become too familiar with the incident that we barely notice it. We cannot wait for the next big news so that we move on from Haiti.
We don’t really care.
And this is why I am not praying for Haiti. The disaster is not close enough or real enough or human enough to move me. If I say a prayer, it will largely be due to guilt. I will do it because I do not want to appear heartless, yet deep down I know that I simply don’t care.
Not as much as I should.
This is the world we live in. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. What is trending is not always what “should” trend. What captures our attention is not always what should occupy us. And that’s just how it is. What can you do about it? What will you do about it?