Your Twitter or Facebook feed might not have alerted you this week to much beyond celebrity feuds and the deaths of baby dolphins, but did you know that in the past week alone 14 people died fighting in Benghazi, Libya, 40 others were killed by US airstrikes in the same country, 28 died in a car bomb in Ankara, Turkey, 22 in suicide bomb attacks in Cameroon, six during riots in India, five at the Afghan-Pakistani border, three were gunned down in Pakistan, and two at the Mali-Niger border?
These tragedies are undoubtedly no less tragic than the Paris attacks or the San Bernardino killings, but those received extensive news coverage. Why do certain acts of violence get more attention than others, both on the news and in conversation? Why do we superimpose the French flag on our profile pictures, but not the flags of Pakistan or Libya? Or more broadly, why do events like John Lennon’s hair being auctioned off “trend” while massacres overseas do not?
I have several ideas why, but welcome other suggestions.
Firstly, we don’t like to talk about violence. It’s not a light topic of conversation that I would bring up at happy hour. I would, however, bring up John Lennon’s hair being sold. That’s a funny, interesting conversation starter. There’s no better way to dampen a mood than saying, “Hey, did you hear about those children who were killed by Boko Haram in Nigeria?”
So we don’t bring up these tragedies because they make us feel uncomfortable and because they don’t lend themselves to enjoyable conversations. As one friend pointed out recently, if we talked about every killing to the extent we talked about Paris, then we’d have nothing else to talk about. Even writing this out makes it look like we don’t care, which I don’t believe is true. We are empathetic beings, so when we hear about violence, a part of us, even if it’s small, feels for the victims.
Secondly, we’re more likely to be shocked by violence when it’s unexpected. Sadly, violence in the Middle East is not uncommon, so we don’t dwell on it like we dwelt on the Paris attacks. Similarly, in countries where terrorist organizations like ISIS, Boko Haram or Al Qaeda are present, we expect tragedies because terrorist organizations by their very nature rely on violence to achieve their ends.
Lastly, we are affected by distance. When something happens close to home, we give it more of our attention. Even though violence in Chicago is expected (eight people, for example, were killed this past week), it arguably receives more attention because it’s in closer proximity to us than countries most of us will never visit.
I don’t believe we are as desensitized to violence as some would argue because we do react emotionally to violence. But if it’s true, one reason other than its prevalence is the way we receive news. We are continually fed so much news, and that news varies in gravity. Often, right next to an article about a suicide bombing sits an article about Kim Kardashian’s latest Instagram post. You’d think that the former would stand out in even greater contrast with the latter, but we keep scrolling down because our brains can only absorb so much information.
A big part of our education is learning to be discerning readers. We are given dozens of great books through the Core and our various majors, and taught to independently evaluate and analyze them. That’s why we read each text slowly in its entirety. By exercising the same judgment when we read the news, we can tune out the nonsense and carefully consider the way we can address the serious problems.