Aeon magazine posted the link to this story on my Twitter feed earlier in the week, and I copied it with the idea that it could be interesting to put in the links roundup on Sunday. However, as I was reading other news articles, I realised that it tied in so well to something else I had seen about the massacre of villagers in Nigeria by Boko Haram.
Reading through the statistics about the numbers of people who have been killed or injured by this group, I was thinking about how the 24-hour news cycle focused so heavily on the attacks in France, with those attacks in Nigeria merely a footnote. This is despite the numbers of dead in Nigeria being devastatingly huge.
This isn’t unique to recent events, either. Take the recent siege in Sydney – Twitter was abuzz, the news outlets had feeds running constantly. People were anxious to get more information about it. Then the school attack in Peshawar happened a day or two later, with massive loss of life, and sure, it rated a mention, but it didn’t hold our attention. It might have been a different kind of event (quick and deadly rather than suspenseful) but that’s the real reason. The real reason is that in the West, we care more about others in the West, than we do about those in developing countries.
One might argue that the media is to blame for this; after all, they decide what will be on the news, what they’re going to put on their websites. But we decide what we’re going to watch or read, and that directly impacts what they decide to show us. So perhaps it is that we just identify more with people who look like us, than those who don’t. We ‘otherise’. We decide whose lives are more important. This might be an natural instinct; it might be one we hold onto from tribal days in the past, where we didn’t know who to trust. But in our global society, surely that’s something we need to get over? We can be proud of our ancestry, we can be proud of our culture. But we don’t need to reject others in order to hold dear our own sense of belonging. We are all humans, after all, and what happens to one, happens to all of us.
And this is where stories come in.
A news report is one thing: its primary focus is getting the information across (albeit with an agenda, so the information the viewer receives depends on the angle which that particular organisation or website wishes to take). But a story! News reports are often called stories, but they’re not quite that. A story is something very different. As the Aeon article points out, story telling is an integral aspect of what it is to be human, and it is through stories that we connect with other beings.
So what stories are we told about people living in France compared to the stories we hear about people living in Nigeria, which means that we don’t appear to value Nigerian lives as we do French? What stories are we telling ourselves? How are we justifying our acceptance of months of ongoing massacre, against our outraged rejection of a few days’ of attacks? It’s not that we should accept either, but our lack of attention to what’s happening in Nigeria is not only shameful and tragic, it’s also ultimately our downfall. We can’t afford to ignore extremism anywhere, not simply from a humanitarian perspective, but because where we ignore it and just think that it’s someone else’s problem, it grows until it becomes ours too. Our attention to what happens in Nigeria, and elsewhere, must be born out of both compassion and pragmatism.
From where I sit, on the south coast of Australia, I think of people in France as being quite like us here. I know French people. I’ve been to France. I can speak the language (poorly). I can identify with them – I can imagine what it is like to live and work there. I know some of their stories, and I feel like they could easily also be my stories. But what do I know of Nigeria? What stories can I tell about people who live there? I know nothing. There is a disconnect, and that is what needs to change. We need their stories. We need to ask those people in Nigeria and Pakistan and all throughout the world: please, tell us your stories. Not just about the horror of the attacks, and the deluded people who perpetrate them, although of course, we need to know about that. But we what we need more, is what it feels like. Tell us about your lives. Tell us about where you work, where you go to school. Tell us what you’re looking forward to, what makes you cry, what makes you angry, what makes you laugh. At this time, more than ever, we need stories to unite us. And considering how easily we can get information if we want, it shouldn’t isn’t that difficult to find them. We just need to be bothered to do it.