Selective outrage: What we choose to be offended by, or not, reveals 'empathy gap'

Three instances show us that when it comes to public outrage, there are no fixed parameters.

Asha Mahadevan August 15, 2016 07:55:26 IST
Selective outrage: What we choose to be offended by, or not, reveals 'empathy gap'

Everyone loves to vent their angst against anything that happens, and that too publicly. But have you ever wondered how we determine if an incident is worth outraging about?

Does an incident have to be tragic – rapes, murders, terror attacks? Or simply unbelievable – Salman Khan’s rape comment, Salman Khan’s Olympic ambassador appointment, Salman Khan’s acquittal in the hit-and-run case? Or maybe insanely stupid – Shobhaa De on India’s performance in the Olympics, Chetan Bhagat on everything?

Three instances show us that when it comes to public outrage, there are no fixed parameters.

A lot was said about the apathy of selective outrage when the world mourned for Paris after the 15 November attacks but no one paid Beirut any attention when it was attacked the day before. You’d think that with so much outrage over the lack of outrage, things will change the next time a similar situation occurred. You’d be wrong. It did not.

Selective outrage What we choose to be offended by or not reveals empathy gap

A bouquet of flowers, stuffed toys and a French flag placed in tribute to Nice attck victims. Reuters

A terrorist attacked a crowd in Nice with a truck and killed 84 people on 14 July. Among the dead were 10 children.
Outrage against the children’s deaths erupted both in real life and on social media. There were memorials erected with toys to pay tribute to the dead children. #PrayForNice trended on Twitter.

Seven children were killed in a bombing in Syria on the same day. Reaction? None. No #PrayForSyria.

Twin bombings at a crowded market in Baghdad left almost 300 dead. Again, reaction? None about the tragedy, no #PrayforBaghdad.

Again, there was outrage over the lack of outrage.

Many observers claimed during the Paris attacks that the number of dead were three times that of the dead in the Beirut bombing and that is why Paris received more attention. If we used the number of dead as a parameter for outrage, that means Nice should have received one third the outrage that Baghdad did. We all know it was the other way around. Why?

If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die?

William Shakespeare wrote those lines in The Merchant of Venice more than four centuries ago, but they hold true today too. Those with brown skin are asking the same question to those who mourn Paris and Nice and Orlando but shrug away Aleppo and Istanbul and Baghdad.

One explanation for this is empathy gap, David A Graham wrote in The Atlantic.  People tend to empathise with places they are familiar with or with strangers ‘who are just like us’. Most people either have been or aspire to go to Paris and a terror attack at such a destination strikes home the way a bombing in Baghdad or Beirut or Aleppo does not. Terror attacks in France hardly ever occurred before the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, whereas the other cities are (or give the impression of being) more violence-prone

In an article he wrote for Salon after the Istanbul bombings, Jalal Baig referred to a study in the Journal of Neuroscience  which looked at empathy. He wrote, “Research using functional MRI (fMRI) to assess brain activity by changes in blood flow has shown that activation of these areas is contingent on the race of the observed person, such that observing someone of one’s own race in pain leads to greater activity in these empathy centers of the brain compared to a person of a different race. People will be more empathetic towards the suffering of someone from their own race or ethnic group.”

Hmmm. Seems fair.

Then again, let’s take a look closer home. In 2012, the brutal gang rape of a physiotherapy student in Delhi outraged the entire nation. The victim was given the moniker of Nirbhaya (fearless). The whole nation prayed that she will survive and mourned when she did not. Even this year, when the juvenile implicated in the crime was released from remand home, there were long debates on whether he should have been tried as an adult and if the laws needed to be changed.

Fastforward to June 2016. A girl was raped in Bihar’s Motihari village by five men. She was badly beaten up and had to be rushed to the hospital in a critical condition. But where was the outrage?

In terms of brutality, age of the victims, even the number of accused, there is not much of a difference between the two women. Last we heard, the Motihari police are yet to catch all accused. And I say last heard because there haven’t been many updates coming from the village. And they are both Indian women of the same race so Baig's theory of race doesn't really hold. So why are we still outraging over the Delhi tragedy but have no sympathy for the Motihari woman?

In a Washington Post article, Brian J Philips, a professor who has researched terrorism, wrote that one of the reasons there was a difference in outrage to the Nice and Baghdad attacks, was that an attack in Nice is an uncommon occurrence whereas one in Baghdad is distressingly common. But that argument does not hold water here.

It’s not a matter of exception: rapes are common in both Delhi and Bihar, with Delhi even earning itself the moniker of rape capital of India. Both are young Indian women. Both suffered brutally but while the nation prayed for the Delhi victim as she lay in the hospital, there is no support for the Motihari victim’s mother as she waits by her daughter’s bedside.

Let’s also take a look at the third instance. In 2015, rapper Sofia Ashraf released a video called Kodaikanal Won’t. It told the story of how the Tamil Nadu hill station was badly affected due to mercury pollution. Set to the tune of Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda, it even got the attention of the American singer. The video went viral and drew the attention of many social media users who had till then not known about the issue. The outrage it drew both online and offline resulted in Unilever actually settling the issue with the people of Kodaikanal and promising to clean up the mess.

Selective outrage What we choose to be offended by or not reveals empathy gap

Sofia Ashraf in the Kodaikanal Won't video. Screengrab from YouTube

In June 2016, Ashraf released another video. Titled Dow v/s Bhopal | Toxic Rap Battle, it told the story of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy and how even today, children are facing the consequences of that event. It called on everyone to sign a petition that will compel the White House to open proceedings against Dow. This video barely made waves.

How come? Everyone knows the story of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, we’ve all grown up hearing it. Then how come it didn’t evoke the kind of response that Kodaikanal Won’t did? The video on the official YouTube page has only 15 thousand odd views. Kodaikanal Won’t on the other hand, is on multiple YouTube channels and has more than four million views. Has so much fatigue set in in one year that people just couldn’t care anymore?

Ben Brooker wrote in The Overland Journal that we have become numb to news about such tragedies. “The saturation of often decontextualised or aestheticised stories of suffering across the breadth of contemporary media has produced compassion fatigue, a term initially applied to trauma workers in the 1950s who had experienced a gradual loss of empathy with their patients, but is more familiar today as a reflection of the numbing ubiquity of news of mass casualty events,” explains Brooker.

Then the question arises, if death toll, race or a feeling of oneness with strangers do not determine what we outrage about, then what does?

Most possibly, it's not just one thing alone. It's a combination of factors related to the event and the people. It depends on society to society – India may outrage over the death of children in a park in Pakistan while a Western society may not care. Similarly, America may care when Philando Castile is shot dead but India may not as much. Indians who are fans of Eveready batteries may shrug at Ashraf’s video and claim it’s high time the victims moved on while a resident of Bhopal will call that insensitive.

Whatever the reason maybe, the fact remains that there is too much happening in the world for anyone to react to everything. Each of us comes with our own biases and these biases decide the extent of our empathy gap. This empathy gap acts as a filter and tells us which events we are willing to be shocked by. When that shock value then overrides our compassion fatigue, we outrage about a tragedy – or outrage about the lack of outrage over a tragedy.

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