On Thursday, a double suicide bombing took forty lives. Barely a day later, a series of shootings and bomb detonations killed 129. Both these attacks were shocking breaks from peace and constitute tragic losses of life. But one incident received disproportionately more coverage. After Facebook allowed users to add a translucent French flag to their profile pictures, the subsequent spread of red, white and blue – as well as countless messages of solidarity and sympathy – across social media powerfully illustrated the importance of proximity in moral judgement.People in the Western world identified vastly more with France – another developed, Western nation; a political ally and trading partner – than with the non-Western, less-understood, seemingly perpetually violent Lebanese capital.
Because of these vastly different reactions to two heartbreaking attacks, many on Facebook began criticizing people for implicit racism: mentioning Paris while neglecting to show support for or even an acknowledgement of Lebanon’s tragedy implies a prioritization of European over Arab lives. Their argument is instinctively compelling. It seems at best morally arbitrary and at worst flagrantly racist not to uniformly condemn all loss of life, or to prioritize one group’s healing over another’s.
But this phenomenon is common and perhaps reasonable. We cannot help everyone, so the human tendency is to help those who are physically or emotionally close. Even those condemning the silence around Lebanon act this way. Activists at Stanford focus disproportionately on issues related to the undergraduate student body: sexual assault, divestment of Stanford’s endowment from certain companies, and social issues such as cultural appropriation. It should not be controversial that, while important to Stanford, these issues are phenomenally unimportant on a global scale. International civil war affects millions every month; the majority of women worldwide are marginalized in every part of society, not just in universities’ hookup cultures; thousands of people are trafficked across the world weekly; and thousands more die of entirely preventable diseases in the developing world. If activists’ genuine goal were to reduce the extent of human suffering – without arbitrarily restricting their efforts to the zipcode 94305 – they would talk about the deworming of impoverished schoolchildren. Such an effort would create several orders of magnitude more good than a mandate that Stanford use Fair Trade goods in dining halls. Even small donations to these causes would result in much more good than demonstrations on Stanford-specific issues.
What explains this apparent contradiction? Do people simply seize the most politically expedient issues to pursue, rather than the most impactful? Black lives matter, but to the activists who blocked the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge in support of the Ferguson Action demands last year, do only American black lives matter, not those of children dying of malaria in Africa? Perhaps they are picking and choosing political issues to support their own narratives of oppression, rather than to decrease global economic and social pain.
Alternatively, and more realistically, morality is more complex than Facebook activists portray it, and prioritizing Paris doesn’t reflect racism and inhumanity. Rather, a system of morality that considers proximity might be defensible. Prioritizing issues nearer to their hearts may make people more likely to help. We focus on the issues about which we care most deeply, or in which we believe we can effect the most change. Proximity creates human connections to tragedies – more Americans know people living in Paris than Lebanon and could imagine them lost – and gives those not affected by the problem a stronger incentive to help. When Detroit natives teach coding boot camps for inner-city residents, it doesn’t mean they don’t care about people starving in other countries. When people focus on local or more personally meaningful issues, they often have more impact because they know more and care more deeply about the problem.
Furthermore, the arbitrariness of proximity does not make it less morally meaningful. For example, children have duties to their parents as they grow older, even though those children did not choose what their parents did for them or even choose to have parents at all. Otherwise, your parents would have no right to give you a present at Christmas without handing out identical toys to every other child. Even though proximity often is arbitrary – my mother and father could have been any two people on earth – it does not follow that the moral obligations of that proximity are arbitrary.
The attacks of last week are deeply tragic, and the vigils and demonstrations of solidarity on campus have been inspiring. It is clearly worthy and right to draw attention to attacks other than Paris’. But altruism and empathy are complex and difficult issues. To claim that people are reprehensible for posting about France’s tragedy is both hypocritical and morally dubious.