Lara introduced me to a saying a long time ago, "hard is hard", and I've often used it when other friends have excused various concerns in their lives as not being as important as the issues that people in other areas of the world are forced to deal with. Life throws everyone curveballs and sometimes even "little" things threaten our stability even more than "big" things, because lots of little things can add up to a pretty big mountain of hard stuff. (I'm not talking about internet outages or Starbucks running out of your favourite coffee. Those are minor inconveniences.)
Comparing my hard to your hard is pointless. Adding the hashtag #firstworldproblems can minimize and invalidate the impact of genuinely distressing circumstances that are hard, even if they seem minor compared to the wars and acts of violence going on in other parts of the world.
Ever since the attacks in Paris, which made big news all over the western world, there has been no end to the commentary about people's reactions to the tragedy - often comparing the reaction to the aftermath of other equally horrifying events.
Why do we treat Paris differently than Beirut?
Someone could probably write a pretty lengthy book about this topic. There's probably a doctoral thesis out there somewhere. I'm no psychologist, but these are the immediate variables that come to mind for me.
If I take the news about Paris and change the city name to my hometown (Tallahassee), the context (for me) changes massively. That quite literally hits too close to home. The emotional connection makes it more real. More shocking. More horrifying. Change it to any other city in the US and the connection is still strong, though not quite the same.
I've never been to Paris. It's not even a city that's on my bucket list to visit. I don't think I feel any more connection to Paris than I do to Beirut, to be completely honest. Possibly less, because I actually know people from Beirut and events there hurt them and I empathize with how it feels for them to see what has happened to a place they love. I don't have any Parisian friends that I know of.
Paris is a "well-known" area of the world for westerners. Some feel connected because they've been there. Some because, like me with Beirut, they know people who are from the area. Or maybe they love the romanticized version of a city that has become a star in many movies. It's a dream vacation spot for many. I know I wouldn't turn down a trip to see Paris.
Beirut isn't a city I would have ever thought of visiting until a few years ago when I heard about it from someone who loves it. For so many years, all mentions of Beirut and Lebanon were about tension in the Middle East or ties to terrorism/terrorists. Tourism wasn't on my radar. Why would it be with such negative associations?
Beirut is the type of place these kinds of attacks happen. Not Paris. Isn't that the message we've been given?
The way a place is portrayed impacts how we view news from that place and the emotional connection we have to it. So, the expectation that a Middle Eastern city is more likely to be subject to terrorist attacks desensitizes us to the event there at the same time that a European city is perceived as unlikely to have terror attacks, which makes it shocking. We understand the culture more readily, even if it is still quite different.
Are either of these events or any of the countless other non-newsworthy tragedies that occur every day more or less tragic?
Not in my opinion.
We feel different degrees of connection, but the fact of the tragedy is never absent. Human murders human. Human dies in accident. Human dies of a disease. Human hurts human. Human is maimed.
Gender, race, religion, sexuality, location, age, profession - none of that matters.
Tragedy is tragedy.
However, there's really only so much tragedy I can personally give emotional energy to. I don't think I'm alone in that. Proximity, bias, expectations - these are ways we compartmentalize events and information that we have to deal with. If the world treated every tragic event with equal fervor, I think it would be too much. People already struggle with information overload.
All lives matter
Back in 2010, I was working with a colleague from southern China. She expressed frustration at the attention that the Haiti earthquake got in the news that year compared with the reaction to an even bigger earthquake in China two years earlier. The outpouring of donations being sent to Haiti in support made her wonder why people didn't care as much when Sichuan was also devastated.
I don't even remember the 2008 earthquake in China. I had a two month old baby and wasn't watching or reading much news at the time. I was embarrassed to admit this to my colleague.
Last week, I found out about Beirut and Paris about the same time because I was fairly disconnected late last week and when I saw the commentary about the difference in coverage, I chose to stay disconnected throughout most of the weekend as well.
What's the solution?
I'm grateful to the people who feel so strongly about shedding light on newsworthy events that aren't given mass media attention. I appreciate that some are asking probing questions about why one tragic event is getting more coverage than another. Even if it doesn't immediately change how the media covers these events, it serves as a way for everyone to start thinking more critically about what's being reported and how.
If this had occurred 10 or 20 years ago the voices asking these questions would be fewer and quieter. Social media has provided the medium to amplify and spread their voices. As with everything, change won't happen overnight.
But as we evolve, we can try to understand that this is not an overt slight. We can lead change by example rather than criticizing the reactions people have to tragic events.