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Subjective Sympathy: Why We Selectively Mourn

January 17, 2018

Despite the fact that on many levels humanity is in a better place than it has been in all history, sometimes it does not feel that way. Perhaps it’s because of mass media, but sometimes it feels as though we are drowning in tragedy. I can hardly remember a time looking at the news in the past few years and not seeing something that sunk my spirits. However, within this inundation of news, there is a discrepancy, both within how it is reported and our reaction as a Western society.


I distinctly remember the terror attacks in both Paris and Barcelona being met with what seemed like nation-wide mourning. People changed their Facebook profile photo, the Statue of Liberty went dark for the Paris attack and, while these events were indeed awful, other events have cost just as much human life and dignity in the same time frame and have been met with much less mourning. Some example of these tragedies are the terrorist bombings in Beirut (Lebanon) or in Iraq, which over the years has certainly accumulated just as many if not more deaths and casualties than those in Paris and Barcelona.


Human life cannot be given a set value yet somehow we have done exactly that. As a Western society, we have decided that the deaths and tragedies in certain parts of the world are the only ones worth dedicating our mental energy towards in mourning.


There’s been more than a few articles written on this topic in outlets such as The Guardian and Atlantic, and they served to mitigate my own outrage at what I assumed was a sense of cultural (perhaps racial) superiority that caused this phenomenon of selective mourning. These articles spread the blame between media and media consumers, as well as gave perfectly acceptable, if regrettable, reasons behind selective mourning.


In terms of the media, it can’t really be blamed for not covering attacks in non-Western countries because actually they do but as consumers, we simply don’t care as much about those stories. Why? Likely because the common conception by Americans is that the Middle East is a near constant war zone (thanks to America and other western nations, I might add). When drastic loss of human life is what we see as the norm for a certain area, then while we still react negatively towards those events, the shock factor is non-existent. An example of this closer to home would be mass shootings. In America in 2017, there were more than 300 mass shootings. Some like the Vegas shooting invoked a nationwide sense of mourning but others, not so much. Mass shootings has become somewhat of a common occurrence in the US. We simply cannot mourn all of them without sinking into a deep hole of existential depression.


In an ideal world, every single loss of life would be treated equally yet it is simply human nature to care more about that we can connect to, like Paris. The Eiffel Tower is iconic to Americans. If you ask an American teen if they want to go to Barcelona for vacation, chances are they’ll say yes. If you ask those same kids if they want to go to Beirut, they probably won’t say yes, and most likely won’t know where that is. There’s simply not enough recognition of and familiarity with non-Western countries, especially the Middle East and Africa, for Americans to bring themselves to care about their tragedies as they care about their own. On a larger scale this is a problem that puts the lives of some above the lives of others, an obviously moral issue, but on an individual scale it has very little do with outright discrimination. So while I can’t say that everyone who selectively mourns is a terrible person, I can say that it is certainly an issue.


If some effort is put towards being aware of what media we consume surrounding disasters, making sure we are educated about the happening everywhere, and then subsequently expressing sympathy, we could greatly impact this general connotation that western society does not care about that which is not a part of it.


3 Responses to “Subjective Sympathy: Why We Selectively Mourn”

  1. Kitt Urdang on January 18th, 2018 9:23 pm

    Lolo! This is amazingly accurate, you absolutely killed this article. Come back soon. We miss you!!

  2. Marilee Lin on January 18th, 2018 9:50 pm

    Thanks for lending your voice from afar. What we deem worth our collective grief or new-worthy at all is definitely something to think about. Hope you are well.

    Mrs. Lin

  3. Joshua Hill on February 2nd, 2018 1:44 pm

    Excellent. Thank you for this.

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