Geography of empathy and apathy
Compassion is tricky. Solidarity is a minefield. Did you add the French tricolour to your Facebook profile picture? If not, are you a heartless bastard, or worse, an apologist for the terrorists who killed over 120 innocent civilians in Paris? But if you did, how long before it is acceptable to remove the unsightly bleu-blanc-rouge from your carefully curated profile pic?
And also: Why didn't you festoon your face with a Lebanese flag to show your sympathy for the dozens of victims of the twin suicide blasts in Beirut, just a day before the Paris attacks? I'm guessing it's not just because plastering a Lebanon cedar over your mugshot makes you look vaguely like a Christmas ornament. Perhaps it's because we are not as magnanimous as we think; our sympathy has limits — and those limits are, to a certain extent, geographic.
As shown by this cartoon map, the crude offensiveness of which is shocking only in so far as it is true. This Mapamundi Tragico colour-codes the horror we experience, and the concomitant empathy we feel, for the tragedies that occur all over the world, from a Western perspective. Those feelings of empathy decrease as the cultural, economic, and geographical distance to the disaster and its victims increases.
The map details five concentric zones of compassion. The red zone, fairly contiguous with what used to be called the "first world," is Ground Zero for our sympathies. For disasters in Canada and the U.S. (but not, strangely enough, Alaska), Western and Central Europe, Israel, Japan and Australia (sorry, no New Zealanders!), we say: Que gran tragedia!
The second circle of sympathy comprises most of Latin America (but not Venezuela, nor the Central American states), the part of Eastern Europe squeezed between Russia and the West, Egypt, South Africa, India, and South Korea. Something terrible goes down here, we can still bring ourselves to think: Ay no, qué triste. But if you're in a train wreck or plane crash in Russia, China, the Middle East, Venezuela, Cuba, or Central America, we shrug: Bueno, asi es la vida. No tears please, they make you look even poorer.
There's worse depths our empathy can sink to. Dozens of miners trapped underground, an apartment building ablaze, a bomb going off in a market place — if that happens in the Guyanas, Mongolia, Central Asia, or the bits of that continent to the west or east of India, our reaction is: Wait a second, does that country even exist? But that's still better than our response to tragedy in most of Africa: Mneh. Or when will your Facebook profile start reflecting your concerns about that genocide now looming in Burundi?
Big Think | by FRANK JACOBS