Caring is not a zero-sum game

Posted by tobymuresianu on Apr 16, 2013 in Politics, Thoughts |

It’s nice how people come together and show support on social networks in the wake of a tragedy like the one that happened in Boston. When your faith in the world is shaken, it is nice to see a lot of people post messages of hope and positivity. It’s easy to say it’s just a Facebook message, but it does have an emotional impact.

There were also a few people who posted messages that pointed out that there were tragedies going on all over the world, and that Boston’s wasn’t special. Examples:


“oh my god! horrible tragedy today. my thoughts go out to the 25,000 people who died of starvation around the world.”

“This really isn’t to cause shit, what happened in Boston is terrible, but would just like to put things in perspective.”

“Americans are so vain. The people in Boston now might know what it’s like to live in Iraq, or Niger or any other unprivileged place…”


If you didn’t see anyone who posted something like this, congratulations, you have better friends than I do.

But it would be disingenuous to write it off; I’ll admit I have instinctively thought it about other tragedies with small casualty figures. When you are used to seeing news articles like “30 dead, 200 injured in Peshawar” is it just egotism that makes us care so much about 3 people dying and 100 or so being injured in one of our cities?

I think there’s a few reasons why it’s not.

First, I think it’s natural to feel more intensely about places to which you have a connection – whether having visited, lived there, studied there, or have friends or relatives living there – and Boston is a city many people have such a connection to. Is it analytically wrong to care more about things you are closer to? Maybe, but you also have more ability to help them, and humans are emotional beings. We feel worse about our friends dying than about two strangers dying half a world away – and that’s true of all people whether they live in the US, Canada or Peshawar.

Second, caring is not a zero sum game. We can care about Boston and care about the third world as well, and despite the stereotypes, many Americans do. it’s particularly silly to imply otherwise when the event in question was a marathon that many people run for charity, which draws participants from all over the world, and is held in Boston – one of the most educated and liberal (if that matters to you) cities anywhere.

Another reason we take Boston more personally because it is more of an attack on us personally. Whoever did it wanted to target people simply because they were there. If I’d been standing next to that garbage can (as I may have many times, having grown up there) they would have been just as happy to have killed me – forgive me if I find that particularly disturbing. I don’t know if there were bombs going off in their neighborhoods whether these posters would be strolling around saying “well, this is nothing compared to the situation in the Central African Republic,” but I suspect not.

Nobody is saying that violence in the third world is less terrible than violence here. All I’m saying is that the reason we are more upset about it right now is completely normal and to imply that it’s due to being egotistical or use it to confirm your pre-existing anti-Americanism is ridiculous.

And what are those posters complaining about exactly? Are they angry that the Boston story is getting front page coverage rather than other conflicts? If so, I’d like to remind them that the Syrian conflict is 2 years old, and ask what paper have they been looking at where it has not consistently been on the front page since then — as well as what world it was published in.

Are they angry that people are posting messages of support on Facebook for Boston rather than the third world today? It’s worth noting that a) they’re not generally posting daily messages of support for the third world, either and b) when events in Syria, Iraq, etc. first happened, many of the same people posting about Boston now were posting messages of support for them, too.

What particularly irks me is how often people who post this stuff act like they are big thinkers for it. They aren’t being thoughtful. They are using knee-jerk anti-Americanism as a substitute for intellectualism, and trying to show off that they read the news as though nobody else possibly could. I don’t mean to start anything. I’d just like to, you know, put things in perspective.

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