In the wake of the tragedy at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando USA, there was the predictable social media outrage and outpouring of sympathy, anger and compassion. Most posts seem to have been in support of the victims and condemning the shooting, but there were of course a few people who are so filled with hate, anger and prejudice that they actually supported the senseless murder of scores of innocent people.
Then there was the inevitable outrage at those who were outraged because the rest of society was not as outraged at some or other event in the not too distant past where some other people were killed.
Every human life is precious and murder is lamentable, no matter the context. Whether the death occurs in the context of a mass murder or an individual murder is irrelevant for those killed and for those directly affected by the murder. Their loss is real and no less or more severe. The life that has been snuffed out is gone. Forever.
However for those of us not directly affected, the idea of one person (or even a handful of people) being able to kill scores of people in mere minutes in a seemingly safe civilian environment is shocking. It strikes us to the very core. It exposes the danger that lurks within society and it is shocking. There is something about human nature that makes us more shocked by the killing of fifty people in one incident than we are by the killing of fifty people in fifty separate incidents. It scares us more. It is closely related to the fear many people have of flying (where in one crash scores or even hundreds will die) but we are perfectly happy driving in our cars which are statistically more dangerous and more deadly. The one seems an acceptable risk because the number of deaths are smaller in one incident than the other. This is illogical, irrational and makes no sense to us intellectually, but is nevertheless the way many of us think.
Interestingly this dynamic switches when many thousands of people are killed. I believe Stalin summed up this very human perspective when he said that ‘one death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic’. It is a cynical world view, but one that is supported by the way we respond to death. Once the numbers of dead exceed a certain ‘tipping point’ we are simply unable to conceptualise that number and we cease to personally identify with the victims; they become mere statistics.
This identification with victims is crucial and explains why some atrocities gather more attention and more outrage than the other. It is not because we as a collective believe that the lives of fifty citizens of Orlando or more valuable than say 150 000 to 400 000 Syrians, or that fifty American lives are more valuable than x lives lost in y atrocity in country z.
The fact is that the internet and social media (especially Facebook and Twitter) are dominated by American and Western European people. They identify more strongly with the citizens of Orlando, Paris, London and New York than they do with the citizens of Tripoli, Aleppo, Baghdad and Mogadishu. The sense of outrage is thus greater when people in these western cities are killed than when similar numbers are killed in other cities.
This is just a fact of life. Wishing it were not so is not helpful. Shaming people for responding emotionally and genuinely is not helpful. The emotional response is genuine and real. It is rooted in human nature. It may in fact be entrenched by other factors such as fear of the unknown, a lack of empathy for the other and possibly even deeply entrenched and sub-conscious malign feelings of xenophobia, cultural and racial superiority etc but the fact remains people will respond more strongly to some situations than others. It is a genuine and real response and people have little control over the emotional responses they have. Although they can of course control how they behave in relation and as a result of their emotions.
What do we do with this response? How do we channel the outrage. Some people seem to think the best course of action is to shame people for their emotional responses. They ask why people were not outraged by some other event? They say that people must be racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic etc because they are responding strongly to x but not y. I find this unhelpful. It seldom changes anybody’s behaviour and often serves to divide people who actually share similar goals. In fact it further entrenches the behaviour as people seek to defend themselves and attack others for attacking them.
A far more effective response would be to use the anger, outrage and sense of tragedy to educate people about other outrages. I also do not think that there is anything innately wrong with people expressing their outrage. It can in fact be a positive good. If fifty LGBT people are killed in Orlando and that results in some people in South Africa thinking about their own homophobia and reconsidering their beliefs then at least those fifty people’s deaths may have achieved some good. But this would not be possible without the sense of outrage sweeping the globe. How would we get those people to reconsider their views without the global outpouring of shock, horror and sadness? Rather than shaming someone for expressing their solidarity with the victims in Orlando, why not join them and at the same time raise awareness of the dangers those closer to home feel.
It is far better to make use of the emotional responses people have than to fight them. Then find ways to educate and engage with people rationally. This will ultimately create real change and widen people’s viewpoints. Let us work together to make the world a better place. This can best be achieved through collective action. More unites us as human beings than what divides us. Finding common ground and acting against hatred, oppression and discrimination will always be more helpful than looking for ways to further fragment us through accentuating the divisions and points of departure.