The world feels like a terrifying place. People are dying in Paris while at a middle class concert. What if we are next?
Catastrophizing is normal, when we hear stories like this. Suddenly the world feels a little less safe. People in Mission, British Columbia are talking about not attending concerts in Vancouver because ISIS might attack. The world has changed.
The funny thing is, Canada is generally safer than it ever has been. Crime, thanks to DNA and technology and changing societal norms, is actually down in many areas. So why are we so afraid?
This topic has been addressed at length so I will not linger long, en route to where we may land. Psychologists and Cultural Anthropologists and The Huffington Post will tell you that one of the reasons we are more prone to feel unsafe in the 21st Century is because we are so much more aware of what is going on in our world. Let’s be honest; before you got your smart phone and tablet did you really know as much about geocultural politics and the Kurds and weirdos like Justin Bieber or the Kardashians? Twenty years ago you would have heard about Donald Trump from a newspaper or on The National (in Canada) with Harvey Kirk and Lloyd Robertson. If you were a conservative you watched Nolton Nash. The mere fact that I can recall their names without Googling the show is a testament to the influence of television on popular culture. The war in Iraq was the first world conflict you could watch, 24 hours a day, in real-time. Palestinians and the Ukrainian struggle and Syrian refugees and radical extremists and Hillary Clinton all know that using the media can change the world.
This week many of my friends morphed their Facebook profiles to a watermark of the French flag, in recognition of the horrific events in Paris. The last time I looked 129 people had perished and well over 300 are injured, many critically. The sheer magnitude of the carnage is staggering and wrong on so many levels. While there seems to be nothing that you can do, there is something powerful about a community, a world, coming together to cry. People changed their Facebook status because they gave a damn.
The criticism was immediate. In the flattened age of virtual opinions and unending criticisms it was not surprising that many took offense to such overt gestures towards what was arguably a predominantly middle-class European culture which we consider our fantasy playground. No one changed their Facebook pictures when 147 Kenyan students were gunned down earlier this year. There have been claims that such inherent racism pervades culture and is the predominant reason why we do not care about the plight of the african black woman. But is that really all that is going on here? Many who jumped on the bandwagon for Paris care deeply about the issues in Africa and some I know have spent significant dollars and time on-site trying to make a difference. Surely they cannot be accused of caring more about the WASP culture?
Like many in my field I tend to look at life through a psychological lens. This may not be your cup of tea and that’s perfectly fine with me; this just helps me make sense of my world. When I hear the accusations of racial bias I cannot help but remember all the studies and books that mentioned how we are naturally biased towards similarity, but in a primal way. Thousands, even hundreds of years ago it was fundamentally important to know how to distinguish friend from foe; and the ability to discern who shared our cultural and tribal values was a very important skill indeed. We are under the fallacy that the world we know today, with our world-wide web and instant credit and all that peace on earth and live and let live crap, is how it has always been. Surely we’ve come so far from such things?
French people are like us. They share our values and we like their desserts. There is an inherent cultural bias towards those who smile when we step on their land. Middle Africa feels like an unending war zone with poverty and desert and politics we cannot begin to comprehend. We watched Hotel Rwanda and we saw the machetes, and a few of us have even watched Beasts Of No Nation, but we know nothing about what it must be like to be a child soldier who watched his family killed in front of his eyes.
Recently I read a great book, I can’t even remember the name because there have been a lot of great books lately, but the author explained how studies have shown that the maximum number of people you can really care about is 1. Let me explain.
When 129 people die in Paris or 147 in Kenya we do not care 127 or 147 times more than if one person died in Paris or Kenya. We do not care 8 times more if 8 people die or even 5 times more if 5 people die. What researchers found is that you don’t even care twice as much if 2 people die. The maximum amount of random people you can care about with all your caring muscle is 1. I can also care a bunch more if that one person is in my family, or one of my friends. When a Canadian soldier dies, I care. I care a bit less when a soldier from another country dies. I don’t mean to be a jerk about it but the science is fairly good on this. Now you can see where I am headed.
Similarity invokes compassion. This is not something we really need to brag about but it may not be racism, at least in the overt sense that you are a freaking racist pig. Affinity does stuff to us on a biological and anthropological level. One of my good friends once confessed to me how uncomfortable he constantly felt because he was the only gay man in the room. He felt a sense of aloneness. Humans seek companionship and community. Meeting another Canadian on a beach in Cancun becomes a bonding experience. Why in God’s name would I want to go out to dinner with someone just because they are a part of the group of 32,000,000 that I belong to?
At the end of the day I really want to go to middle Africa. As an ignorant suburban lightweight I owe it to myself to take the time to fall in love with people whom I would never have met otherwise. Our world is pregnant with incredible cultures that will expand your horizons and teach you lessons you will never learn at home. People who know me know that I constantly tell people to go to Europe. I cannot even explain to you, if you have never been, what the experience is like. Europe ruined me for my homeland. People from other parts of the world dream of visiting Canada. I dream about living in Europe. Some of you know what I am talking about.
What happened in Paris was a tragedy. Syria and Palestine, Nigeria and Kurdistan. The more we understand about these foreign cultures the more apparent it becomes that there is a universal sense of community which transcends culture or race.
No matter where in the world I have travelled, there seems to commonality, an essential desire for community and meaning. We have been divided by artificial constraints conceived in fear and propagated by economics. There is, within humanity, an essential sameness that many hope will someday transcend the petty and broken institutions and governments which serve to remind us how different and foreign the “other” is.