Selective Empathy: You Were Charlie... Why You Are Not Garissa

22/04/2015 10:40 BST | Updated 18/06/2015 10:59 BST

Selective Empathy

A universal ideal of empathy led the animals in George Orwell's allegorical Animal Farm. The animals initially declare that 'All animals are equal'. This was subsequently amended to 'All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others'. This was universal empathy giving way to selective empathy- uniform equality overcome by a tiered equality.

Selective empathy is the idea that though all people are equal, some are more equal than others. John Donne. wrote "any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind." However, are all deaths equally diminishing to the collective psyche? There are, it seems winners and losers in the sweepstakes of compassion- those who get more of our collective compassion, those who get less, those who get none.

When a dozen cartoonists were killed in Paris, the whole world was visibly outraged. What were the collective responses to the suffering and deaths of hundreds of thousands in the Middle East, or the killings of tens of thousands in Northern Nigeria by Boko Haram, or the 147 students in Kenya's Garissa University?

Empathy is the currency of personhood- and selective empathy ascribes shifting values of personhood to other humans based on how much society values them, and how much we can relate to them. Empathetic Value can be thought of as a crude form of foreign exchange rate. If I USD= 93 Kenyan shillings, therefore, at least in in terms of media coverage, 1 U.S life is equivalent to about 93 Kenyan ones.

In 1946, Albert Einstein addressed the issue of selective empathy, in the context of North American racial inequality. He said " Their sense of equality and human dignity is mainly limited to men of white skins." He noticed how the majority of North American society, as well as the legislation extended the dignity of equality and other human rights that extend from empathy only to whites. Those with 'other' skins were not selected to be recognised as full people. They were 'Others' to be feared, pitied, loathed, desired, admired- but not to be related to, or treated equally. When 'others' exist, empathy is impossible because the 'other' is never quite human, never a person.


The Root of It: The Myth of the Other

There is one reason for this disparity in our empathetic value: a belief that some humans are somehow built of 'other stuff'. This 'other stuff' is myriad- skin colour, hair texture, clothing, ethnicity, wealth, class, language, culture. This 'other stuff' is superficial. Yet blinded by the perceived 'otherness', we ascribe complex narratives to these superficial differences.

These 'others' in poorer nations are both subhuman and superhuman. That poor mother and suffering child who are refugees in the DRC, that young man in Iraq who lost his family, they seem at once subhuman and superhuman. They are, it is imagined, built for hardship, more capable of absorbing the effects of death, loss, and trauma than we are.

This view of 'other' as simultaneously subhuman and superhuman can be seen in the recent article on immigration by controversial commentator Katie Hopkins, where she states "Make no mistake, these migrants are like cockroaches. They might look a bit "Bob Geldof's Ethiopia circa 1984", but they are built to survive a nuclear bomb. They are survivors."

And less dramatically, many people subconsciously hold this view. It is encouraged, and seems an admirable trait of 'otherness'. After all, following visits to developing countries on holidays, one remarks how 'despite the squalor and suffering, somehow those people were smiling.' Their suffering, while indeed sad, is accepted as a given.As long as we imagine fellow people as 'others', as long as we continue to ascribe value to arbitrary differences, we will permit the divisive systems such as poverty, racism, sexism, to exist.. There might be compassion, pity, charity, but towards these poor 'others', there is no empathy.

Rehabilitating Empathy

Empathy is Promethean fire. This godlike quality allows us to negotiate social contracts that liberate us from innate selfishness and Hobbes' 'nasty, short, and brutish' experience. Empathy is the foundation of the golden rule. We aim to do unto the people around us as we would have them do to us. If you recognize someone is like you, conscience demands that you treat them with consideration.

Lack of empathy, as history has repeatedly shown, is the breeding ground of every atrocity and indifference.

We need a radical new type of education, a radical re-orienteering of our mindsets, and the stories we tell and believe about others. We must prioritise and teach empathy if we are to get ahead and get along as a species. And the way to shatter the myths of intrinsic and innate difference is by throwing away the old tomes of prejudice and introducing ourselves afresh- nation to nation, person to person.

These new stories must start with the word, 'I am'. Everybody telling their stories, in their own words, in words we all understand, everybody listening. So powerful are the two words ; I Am', that they constitute the sacred name in the Pentateuch. Self-designation, and mutual respect are the antidotes to otherness and selective empathy.

We started with the IAMCHARLIE / JESUISCHARLIE hashtags.

Lets us continue ........I AM Garissa .....