The Curious Case Of (selective) Social Empathy

I’d like to start this off with a couple of disclaimers and caveats about how one should read my post. But maybe whoever is reading this should read it with their eyes, not mine. Maybe if you feel strongly about the matter you’ll respond with an opinion of your own. Maybe not. For now, let’s keep it to the basic: this is my opinion.

It’s been two days since I woke up to the news of the shootings in Paris. My first thought was that this is happening way too often. Why all the recent attacks on the French capital? Then I thought of my classmates who are studying abroad in Paris this semester. (They all checked in as safe, thanks to Facebook). And alas back to Twitter I was, skimming through tweets and retweets to learn as much as I could about what happened. There was a lot. One of the coordinated shootings occurred at the Bataclan. U2 cancelled their Parisian gig in respect. Same with Steven Spielberg and Natalie Portman’s film premieres. But maybe that isn’t nearly as important as the fact that the rest of the world joined France in mourning and condemning the tragedy. Most major city monuments had their colours turned to the French blue-white-red in a show of solidarity. Many of us took to twitter to #PrayForParis.

But interlaced with the images and tweets and prayers flooding my TL, were a number of defiant questions. Why pray for Paris when we’re not praying for Burundi, for Lebanon, for Syria, for my country Uganda? Why pray for Paris when we’re not tweeting about the #BlackLivesMatter, #FeesMustFall campaigns? Why pray for Paris when we can’t even pray for ourselves?

I’ll admit, I was a bit miffed with the fact that these were appearing way too often amidst the tweets on the Parisian tragedy. I felt like they were taking away from the conversation. But, it was early Saturday morning. I didn’t want to engage. I didn’t want to sound angry. In short, I knew where these type of conversations always ended on Twitter. And yet, it’s a thing. Each time something tragic happens elsewhere in the “western world”, a whole bunch of people are going to say we shouldn’t care. That’s their problem because they don’t care about our problems,

But see, why shouldn’t I care? When a shooting goes down in a city like Paris, it’s not a government facility that’s razed down. It’s not French military equipment that was destroyed. Heck, it wasn’t even Euros that were burnt up in their National Treasury. (Money, of course can be re-minted, but that’s not the point.) No, when a shooting like the one we woke up to happens; it is 129 people killed, more than 300 injured and countless many other families destroyed. People who just so happen to have their lives happening in Paris, and were in these places at this exact time. Sure, some might have been long overdue for some retribution, maybe a certain loss will spur a government official into some “good” action but majority of the dead will be everyday people struggling just as I am. My close friend at uni has more than 5 of her family members living or studying in France – that thing most of us Africans do where we go to our former colonialists’ countries because they have the best universities. Two years ago, my older sister would have been one of those. The everyday people who make up contemporary Paris are not hell-bent aloof, Europeans that look down at foreigners. Yes, as the stereotype suggest, those exist. But Paris, as any other metropolitan city, is made up of human beings. Natives with old connections, recent immigrants,  black, white or brown, Moslem, Catholic or Jewish. These are the people who are hurting. Of course I’ll mourn right along with them, because at that moment in time, it’s not the “establishment” that is hurt the most. It’s a person, breathing just like you and me.

But still, I understand the anger. Let’s bring this back home. Why is no one else talking about Burundi, you ask? Or of the brutality and impunity in Uganda? My instinctive reply seems to be that the western world will care about the western world. They’ll cover Parisian news because their audience will care more about the going-ons in Paris. We can’t force it. Paris, France and the European Union all have way more active Twitter users than Uganda has, than Burundi. While we can get by-the-second coverage of events in Europe, and the U.S. through social media, we can’t expect the same for our East African countries. Even if data wasn’t so expensive, we just don’t have the numbers nor the scale. And yet, maybe that shouldn’t matter if you care.

If you’re the average Twitter user (insert other social media outlets here), you’ll learn of a tragedy through your feed. You’ll repost it, or even make your own post acknowledging the fact that you know. If you’re religious, you’ll send up a short prayer to God as you scroll on to other things. While you’ll think about the issue now and then, you won’t do much beyond that, and tomorrow they’ll be something new to retweet or “engage” with.

If maybe, you’re the affronted kind that doesn’t really want to be praying for other humans that have lost their lives when your neighbours are suffering too, but are not yet xenophobic, I am appealing to you. Lose not the empathy you hold towards people. Tragedy is tragedy is tragedy IS TRAGEDY. No need being selective about who we feel sorry for, whose pain we feel. As someone said, we don’t have to have fought for #BlackLivesMatter to #PrayForParis, I don’t have to have been an AIDS activist to legitimate my #CancerUg tweets. What matters is I care. I have a sense of empathy. I want to take part in the conversation, here and now.

Now here’s my disclaimer: this was exactly 1000 words, asante bwana .


  1. I’m wIth you on this. I find it strange when people get selectively righteous indignant. If you worry about all things unequal and unbalanced, isn’t it just a mere assumption that this feeling would extend generously to all things unfair? Sure you’ll care for what you believe in, but how is being unsympathetic for the troubles in another country acceptable just because the country is rich enough or large enough or a first world country or …..excuses to justify lack of pity. Loss is loss everywhere. That it doesn’t affect someone directly doesn’t make it any less severe or important. We need to change our minds and the way we react to things.

What do you think?