When Kim Kardashian breaks a fingernail, the world gasps. Meanwhile, hundreds of young girls could be kidnapped and raped in places like Nigeria and Bangladesh. There’d be a token burst of indignation across social media and, perhaps if these girls are lucky, a mention on a big mainstream media new outlet. Beyond that, it is an uphill slog to sustain public awareness. Indeed, it is astounding how the amount of attention Kardashian’s fingernail would attract could utterly dwarf the public response to the cry of anguish of all those Nigerian and Bangladeshi girls combined.
Today the world stands in solidarity with the people of France following the vicious terrorist attack on Paris by Islamic terrorists. But the strength of this solidarity highlights the starkness of the lack of attention other terrorist attacks in other cities attract. But I’m not here to judge people who choose to shed tears for Paris today (and adding the French colours to their profile photos on Facebook) after scrolling past news about similar attacks on Beirut and other cities on their timelines.
That’s just the way the world works, folks.
We can’t really pretend to be people who give equal attention to all things in our environment. In fact, we are physically incapable of doing so. If we were creatures who could be equally indignant about every outrageous event that happens around us, we’d suffer the same thing Superman suffered when he first started developing his super-hearing powers as a teenager. Superman had to train himself to focus only on the important signals and filter out the noise in order to make the most of his super-sensitive senses. Ordinary people like us, on the other hand, did not need to consciously train ourselves to filter out noise from the barrage of data collected by our five senses that hit our brain every second. We were born to be selective about what we pay attention to.
This acute selectiveness is a cognitive skill we apply at a subconscious level. We can, for example, focus on the voice and the words of a specific person we are having a conversation with in a room full of people who are talking as loud as that person. That is a remarkable brain skill that we are hardly conscious of — because it is part of an ancient mechanism that is hard-wired in our brain. We also know of times when a single word or sound from across that din of chatter can just as easily direct our attention away from the person right in front of us. My ability to quickly tune in on a conversation I subconsciously perceive to be, say, important to me from a across a long dinner table attests to the awesomeness of the finely-tuned alert mechanism that is in our brains.
In the same way, we cannot really blame the broader public for the seemingly disproportionate amount of attention it gives to Paris over and above the rest of the suffering world. Paris, after all, is a city everybody loves — which is not the same sort of thing one could honestly say about Beirut or Dhaka, perhaps.
When something bad happens to Paris, everybody becomes sad because most people could relate to Paris. Even people who have not been to Paris, can claim to have a personal relationship with The City of Love thanks to the abundance of literature and media content filled with stories and experience set there. Paris is like family to most of the world’s citizens. When something bad happens to family, empathy comes easy.
Closer to home, we hear certain activists lament the way Filipinos can be so vocal about their grief about the victims of the Paris terrorist attacks half a world away while being oblivious to the plight of the Lumads (indigenous people who live in Mindanao) just a few hundred kilometres from imperial Manila. Well, we’ve always celebrated the way mass communication technology has made the world a more connected place, haven’t we? As such, there are certain realities about such a world we need to come to terms with.
Perhaps those who have never experienced being trapped in a conversation they don’t want to be in at a cocktail party while keeping their radars up scanning the room for better company or even listening in on more interesting chatter going on at the other table should be the first to cast the first stone at folk who cry and ‘pray’ for Paris today.
Nobody can presume to be an authority on what or who one cries for.
[Photo courtesy ABC News.]