Je Suis Western

The whole western world rallies behind France when 20 people are murdered in a terrorist attack in France. But who bats an eye when twice as many die in a suicide bombing in Yemen on the same day?

I can definitely tell you which of the two was the top story on January 7.

Last week Boko Haram killed “thousands” in Nigeria, by Amnesty International’s count.* Just yesterday, a suicide bombing in Tripoli, Lebanon left 7 dead.** But the Charlie Hebdo attack is still the top story. After all, what’s 7 more people dead in the Middle East or Africa? Aren’t suicide bombings just normal there? Wouldn’t reporting deaths by terrorism in the Middle East be like reporting deaths by heart disease in the USA?

Sometimes I get the feeling that that’s what western news outlets think. Sometimes I get the feeling that that’s what westerners think, at the very least subconsciously.

Like most people my age, I don’t read the paper. I get my news online, specifically from Google News. I realize that what shows up on my Google News page goes through a lot of different algorithms, based on most-viewed stories, my preferred news outlets, what’s most popular where I live, what I click on most, and what other people click on most. So, even though I put a high preference on World News and I frequently click on stories from/about the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, stories about Paris and Mark Zuckerberg still shoot to the top of my feed.

I’m not going to pretend to understand algorithms, I just want to share my observations. Also, I want to make really clear that I believe what happened in Paris was truly awful. What I’m trying to emphasize is that similar deaths in Yemen, Nigeria, Lebanon, and other non-western countries are also truly awful, and often much more catastrophic, yet they garner exponentially less outcry in western media.

I understand why Charlie Hebdo is such a big story, and a scary one at that. It’s geographically and culturally closer to us. How many of us have been to Paris on vacation, or dreamed of going to Paris on vacation?

I have a sort of hypothesis that I call the tourism principle: people only actively care about what happens in places they’d conceivably go on vacation or business. We don’t have enough energy to devote grief and empathy to every horrible things that happens in the world, so we have to choose, and we choose that which most directly affects us. I know that’s partly why I care so much about what happens in the Middle East: I’ve been there. I have friends there, and I want to go back.

I don’t have a solution. This is just my way to quietly call out what I’ve observed. What do you think?

Sources:

New York Times, “Car Bombing Kills Dozens at Yemeni Police Academy,” http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/08/world/middleeast/sana-yemen-car-bomb.html

*USA Today, “2,000 dead: Massacre Deadliest in Nigerian History,” http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2015/01/10/nigeria-boko-haram/21552437/

**Haaretz, “Double suicide attack on Lebanese cafe kills at least seven,” http://www.haaretz.com/news/middle-east/middle-east-updates/1.636306

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