Paris, Beirut and cultivating genuine empathy in the digital age

Enough grief to go around.
Enough grief to go around.
Image: Reuters/Mussa Qawasma
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As France mourns the victims of the Paris attacks, Americans are still grappling with their own anguish over the violence that left 129 people dead. But mixed with public mourning rituals here are fierce debates over the politics of grieving in the digital age.

Attacks on Beirut, once known as the “Paris of the Middle East,” did not stoke the same despair as its sister city.

“We do not get a ‘safe’ button on Facebook,” Lebanese blogger Joey Ayoub writes. “We do not get late night statements from the most powerful men and women alive and millions of online users.”

In an Instagram poem that quickly went viral, New Delhi-based writer Karuna E. Parikh urged the international community to pray “for the world that does not have a prayer … not simply in the towers and cafes we find so familiar.”

Adding some gallows humor, an Algerian satirical news site claimed to report the findings of a Japanese research team: one Western victim is worth exactly 1,745 Muslims.

Many online users took note. In tweets and status updates, posters dutifully added “Beirut” to their eulogies for Paris. Designer Kristian Labak quickly added to the Eiffel Tower-peace sign mashup shared by thousands another symbol featuring Lebanon’s cedar tree.

Inclusive gestures like these should be lauded. But the problem with our response to global violence isn’t just about etiquette: it’s about empathy.

It took last week’s set of assaults to highlight the way Westerners tend to divide the world into two distinct populations, which cultural theorist Judith Butler calls “grievable” and “ungrievable.”  It will take more than rote considerations of another nation’s traumas to bridge these deep divides.

How, then, can people build more empathy?

If the digital age can provide us with a platform to air our (selective) grief and outrage, then the ease of global communications can also give Westerners a means of opening their eyes, ears, and hearts to other cultures.

1. Befriend people from other places

I moved to Paris at age 21, anxious about beginning a master’s degree. On the first day of my program, I entered the classroom with a pounding heart, well before the start of class. I was surprised to see another student sitting there, an intimidatingly fashionable girl about my age. Self-conscious of my accented French, I could only croak bonjour. To my relief, she went about befriending me. My nerves settled.

I learned she was from Lebanon. It was a country I knew nothing about. Later in life, I would end up living in Palestine, traveling through North Africa, the Gulf, the Levant. But in my school days, Darine was one of my first friends from the Middle East.

In 2006, when Beirut came under Israeli fire, I didn’t think of the angry, anonymous faces shown in the news. I thought of Darine.

These were the wilderness years before social media. Now we needn’t rely on chance encounters. Facebook is rife with grassroots peace activism groups, with pages like the Peace Factory serving as virtual hangouts for those curious about how to develop cross-cultural friendships. Their website, which features “Humans of the Middle East” style mini-interviews with millennials from Iran, Syria, and Palestine, even comes complete with “friend me” links.

2. Expand your cultural repertoire

Even Americans who have never traveled to Paris have taken this attack to heart. The French capital is achingly familiar. They’ve grown up with the City of Lights in television and movies, lived and loved on Parisian streets from afar. Paris is where Audrey Hepburn vamped in cigarette jeans, and where Owen Wilson hobnobbed with Hemingway and Picasso. It was on the pont des arts that Carrie and Mr. Big reunited.

Seen on film, cities create a cherished bond, an almost dreamlike intimacy.

An old acquaintance of mine, a French opera singer, burst into tears of joy when she first saw New York City, because it looked exactly as it had in the movies.

Yet there is a whole world outside of Hollywood with rich cinematic traditions of its own.  “We ain’t gat an eiffel tower here,” Nigerian actress Danielle Okele posted this week in a rebuke to her Instagram followers, who had shown support to Paris over northeast Nigerian victims of terror.

Nigeria, plagued by attacks from the militant group Boko Haram, is also among the world’s largest producers of films.  Nollywood, a $590 million industry, releases about fifty movies a week, according to a 2013 United Nations estimate.  The productions rely mostly on five-figure budgets and are buoyed by cheap digital distribution.

For the uninitiated, Netflix streams a few recent Nigerian flicks, from Confusion Na Wa, best picture at the 9th Africa Movie Academy Awards, to period thriller October 1. Nollywood films are more likely to be set in Lagos than in the country’s fractious north.

Anyone looking to relate to contemporary Syria outside of the refugee crisis should look to TV.  A pair of Ramadan serials, the period drama Bab al-Hara and the comedy Dunia, keeps the Arab world in thrall every holy month. When I first caught them on Palestinian television, I was shocked to see Syrians do other things than flee war.

It is easy to overlook people in peril, and far harder to ignore the humanity of Syrians and Nigerians conducting normal lives. That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to the stories that people around the world tell about themselves.

3. Travel

The internet provides nearly limitless avenues for cultural discovery. But the best empathy-builder may be to go offline.

I didn’t expect my friendship with my Lebanese classmate to lead me to Beirut, but five years after our meeting, I took her up on an invitation to visit.  That first afternoon, we kicked off our shoes and ran through the pounding turquoise surf of the Mediterranean.  At night, we drank cocktails in the city’s hip backstreets. When she was busy, I went off exploring on my own.  People were welcoming and curious, asking about my travels and my life back home.

Beirut came into focus for me: I encountered a vibrant, sophisticated city, far from the war-torn ruin shown in the media. It had become real to me, just like Paris–and it remains a place I can close my eyes and see.

“It is no crime to rue the loss of something familiar more than the loss of something remote or altogether unknown,” fumed a recent op-ed in The Washington Post.  True enough.  But perhaps if the rest of the world were a little more familiar, there would be enough tears for those places as well.