The news of ordinary French people watching sport, chilling out at a cafe or attending a gig this week being gunned down by violent extremists, really brings home how it could have been any one of us. Its unthinkably awful that anyone would target random innocent civilians like this.
But the response from the public has been split in several directions. Do we need to toughen our stance on asylum seekers? Tighten border controls? Crack down on Muslims more generally? Do we need to show solidarity with the French by lighting everything from water fountains to facebook profiles in red, white and blue? Has this finally brought terrorism to us in Western Europe? Or does it just highlight how we are constantly ignoring the stories of so many people of other nationalities who have been killed across the world recently without making headlines of outpourings of sympathy? These are complicated questions to unpick.
In terms of whether the right response is to call for harsher actions towards violent extremists, I am reminded of an article I read in the psychologist, and an evidence review in the BPS research digest about the psychology of terrorism and extremism respectively. The main point I took from it is that acknowledging the kernel of legitimate grievance behind such actions and engaging in dialogue with moderates from similar demographics are both actions that make it harder to for extremists to recruit, whilst moving towards more polarised positions (eg all this tough talk about closing borders and not negotiating with terrorists) or language blaming the whole of a culture or religious group make more people within that broader group feel inclined to sign up to the more extreme positions.
Whilst the actions of ISIS are deplorable, the generalisation of negative feeling to all muslims is appalling. I even read about a tragic story in which a Hindu man had been pushed into the path of a train and killed by someone who thought this was a suitable reprisal for 9/11. Islam is a religion as large and diverse as Christianity. Nobody thinks the Klu Klux Klan represent Christians, yet large swathes of the western world appear to think ISIS speak for all muslims, when they are just as misrepresentative of the mainstream view within Islam. And alienating Muslims from the western world is a big mistake. The huge amount of moderate representatives of Islam (over a billion of them) are ordinary people who are just as appalled about the action of extremists as members of other religions or none. And they also form the moderate pole of the spectrum from which the extremists are drawn to ISIS. So we need to ensure that we engage this group in how we address these atrocities, and to integrate them into our societies to ensure this polarisation does not continue to play out across the world.
Extremism comes from perceived injustice and powerlessness amplified in small groups of like-minded others, and justified with reference to religion. Reducing injustice, allowing grievances to be heard and addressed, and being inclusive to moderate representatives are the only variables that anybody outside of the individual and those very small cultural subgroups has any control over, and it is these things that let South Africa get out of apartheid and Northern Ireland get out of the troubles there. I can’t see any other way to address the other conflicts going on in the world, be they in Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza, Nigeria, Syria or Somalia. Surely, even if we accept that some human beings will always turn to violence, the aim is to reduce the scale of conflicts down from wars to individuals, so that less people get caught in the crossfire?
As to whether we have reacted with more sympathy to deaths in France to deaths elsewhere in the world. Again I think this is a complex issue. There is implicit bias in the system, coupled with habituation. We are more attentive to stories that feature people we identify with, and we pay more attention where the events seem novel, rather than recurrent. Think about children going missing from home and the coverage that white kids from ‘nice homes’ get when compared to any other ethnicity, or kids from the care system (by way of example, the other day I noticed that three kids went missing from the same place on the same day and only the white girl got news coverage). The British media definitely place more focus on events that affect white, western nations. Even though non-mainstream media and some voices within social media are picking up on this theme and people are starting to question the systemic bias in the news, I think it is fair to say that we do have endemic problems with racism in the western world. Whether that is due to prejudice, vested interests or the fact that telling stories about familiar protagonists or showing photos that look like the customer is more likely to sell newspapers or screen time, I don’t know.
However, people are always illogical about world events. An individual story you can relate to humanises what would otherwise be too overwhelming to process. Genocide, war, famine are all too big to conceptualise, so we figure we can’t make a difference and don’t give them much head space. We don’t know anything about the refugee camps outside Syria, or the day to day grimness of so many of these wide scale conflicts. However, a mother who can’t feed her child in the news coverage of the famine, an orphan who plays football on a LiveAid appeal video, the shock of an ordinary looking person at a gig or a cafe talking about how they saw their peers getting gunned down, or a dead baby washed up on a beach – those are the individual stories that we can relate to. They call out to us, and force us to place ourselves in the shoes of the protagonists, and that makes us sympathetic and much more drawn to positive action.
So do we speak up about all the missing stories when friends share content about Paris, to show their virtuousness is not evenly applied? I’m not so sure. It seems to me that the solution is not to criticise those people who do feel empathy with the individual stories they can relate to, but to tell the stories of the other conflicts in more relatable ways also, so they get a similarly empathic and constructive response. Compassion isn’t like a cake that is a finite resource that has to be shared out between all callers. It is something we can cultivate and broaden, and help to bring out in others.
It reminds me of a quote from Martin Luther King: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that”.
And we have to reach beyond the boundaries of religion, ethnicity or nationality. Does it never seem absurd to you that people on this little blue-green planet we have evolved through the millennia to share are arguing about where somebody drew lines on a map hundreds of years ago, or whose stories about creation and morals are correct, without recognising that people are just people? Whatever colour of wrapping they come in, or language they speak or whether they believe in a God, and what name they call it makes no material difference to their ability to experience joy or suffering just the same as us. No matter how strange their lives seem, we’d have done the same if born into their community, and they’d be like us if born into ours.
So let us reach out in compassionate and loving ways to those around us, and especially to those showing ignorance or being excluded from our society. We are all in this together.