Is empathy a zero-sum game? If I extend it to one victimized group, does it diminish the significance of the suffering of another?
Questions about empathy have been percolating since this tweet went viral after the Paris attacks.
The message referred to suicide bombings killing at least 43 people in Beirut just a day before the Paris attacks.
One response came from the news website Vox, which said the tweet was inaccurate, as major news outlets did cover the bombings extensively. Vox also noted that, as wrong as it might feel, the lack of clicks shows readers don’t care.
And the Washington Post published a well-reasoned opinion piece laying out seven reasons why the Paris terrorist attacks were more newsworthy than the ISIS attacks in Beirut.
We had Hatem Bazian on "The California Report" this week to address the issue. He’s a senior lecturer at UC Berkeley and the co-founder of Zaytuna College, the first Muslim liberal arts college in the U.S.
Bazian said it’s not simply the quantity of coverage but the kind of coverage people are bemoaning.
“That tweet has to be read as people saying, ‘We don’t see our story,’ ” Bazian said.
In the Paris coverage, we learned intimate, humanizing details of the victims’ lives. For example, on NPR, we learned about Naomi Carrera, a slight blond woman who escaped the massacre.
"Naomi," as the host called her, had been in the concert hall. When she heard the shootings, she thought she might die. She called her mom to deliver her last words, “I love you.”
These are the kinds of details that help readers connect to the victims and identify with their plights. These are the kinds of details that foster empathy.
Yet with the ISIS terrorist attacks in Beirut, Turkey and Yemen, the coverage was more about statistics, Bazian said.
“We don’t hear about the 6-year-old,” he said. "What was his name? How was his relations with his mother? How many kids were killed in the bombing. Were they playing soccer?"
Instead, he said, we get the facts: Two bombings took place in Lebanon and 43 died.
“It’s not the fact that the Paris attacks are not important,” Bazian said. “Rather than see it as a zero-sum game, we need to see that our life stories are interconnected.”
And that in expanding our understanding of tragedies occurring in an increasingly interconnected planet, we can expand our understanding of ourselves.