by András Zágoni-Bogsch
Opinion Piece – As black and white images with the words “Je suis Charlie” disappear from our Facebook friends’ profile photos, and while the media coverage about the brutal massacre that shook the Western abates, we are left with questions to ask ourselves. Not only about what happened to the victims of the shootings in Paris, but also, about what happened to us, and how our mind ticks when it comes to tragedy.
During that week in January however, the massacre at Charlie Hebdo was not the only tragedy. Little time separated the deadly gunfire in Paris from a bloodbath of unthinkable proportions in Nigeria, committed by the Islamist terrorist organization Boko Haram. Accurate counts on the number of victims are still unavailable as the terrorists continue to control the region where the massacre happened. However, the estimates place the number of casualties close to two thousand. Interestingly, the front page of the New York Times was dominated by Charlie Hebdo in the week that followed the attack, in stark contrast to the Boko Haram carnage, which never appeared there. How could this be explained?
The answers to these questions lie within us. After the Charlie Hebdo shootings, Western society was in a state of public frenzy, in what the sociologist Jock Young described as moral panic in his 1971 work “Images of Deviance.” Moral panic happens when a large group of society, often manipulated by the media, feels that some essential value in society, or social order as a whole, is under threat. This is not to say, as Young’s theory would have it, that we did not feel so much for the lives of the Frenchmen executed in cold blood by the terrorists, but rather, what we felt was generated by the media. The idea of moral panic here implies that we not only felt for innocent souls lost, but what these people meant to us, something most people only realized when they were already gone. We felt for what their lives and their work symbolized in our history, society and culture. The attack on them was an attack on our freedom. But the effects of such a shock, unlike grief, die away in a fortnight. And we must not hate ourselves for that.
The question how we decide on what to care about remains, and the disproportionality between the volumes of the two attacks only makes the question mark bigger to critics in and out of Europe. If, in the name of freedom, we are thrust into a state of panic by the death of 12 people in one day in France, should we not feel several times as terrorized by the merciless murder of 2000 innocent Nigerians?
Once again, understanding the way we are can help us ease the dissonance that our feelings and behavior give rise to, and that critics have rightly pointed out. As social psychiatry professor at UCLA points out in TIME magazine, “we tend to empathize more with people that we feel are more ‘like us,” a phenomenon that legendary social psychologists of the last century such as Theodore Newcomb and Leon Festinger developed as the principle of proximity. As Paul Slovic, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon has it, “the psychological distance between us and France is smaller than the psychological difference between us and Nigeria,” and therefore, what most people in the Western world want to hear about is the shootings in Paris, and much less those in Nigeria. And what the media does is to serve their needs in bringing them the stories that they are most eager to hear about.
Clearly, one could argue that this is so far from ideal that it would best be described as wrong. Yet how we feel and what we tend to feel more about is an essential part of how our minds and emotions work. The guilt that arises from our inability to live up to the standards we set ourselves will serve absolutely no one and nothing. In turn, understanding what we care about and why may also help us to start paying more attention to what we currently seem to ignore.