It's critical that we move away from thinking of people we don't know as 'other' thinking of people from different backgrounds and leading different lives as being people we cannot empathise with...

4 min read

Asleep in my bed at 4 am, I hear a noise and I feel shaken, I feel disturbed, I feel scared. I hear a scream and then another until the very air is filled with sound and all I can taste is dust. The sound of car alarms, the sound of rocks tumbling, the sounds of glass shattering, and the sound of my world coming to an end.

I was born in the UK and am blessed to not recognise those sounds as happening near to me or my loved ones. These are the sounds many hundreds of thousands have heard, whether from conflict or natural disaster.

We see events happening across the world and we watch in horror, we flinch at the sights being beamed into our living rooms and onto our phones. These sights will fade, likely by the time you get to read this the news cycle will have moved on as it does so quickly, and another news story will dominate the headlines. Such is the way with our perceived appetite for news, our hunger to know all, to know everything from anywhere. Many of you (some of you) may recall the floods in Pakistan only a year ago, a third of the entire country was left underwater. The news moves on as millions still suffer. We see this across our planet, as a society we are overwhelmed by negative news stories (estimates suggest a 10:1 ratio of bad to good news stories.) There is a negativity bias across our media, and to an extent it’s understandable – no planes crashed today, we had no earthquakes, today was not a record temperature day, and it’s not really news, is it?

But the constant feed of bad news is taking from us our sympathy. With every bad news alert that pops up on our phone, with every live headline scrolling on the bottom of the screen we feel pushed further into crisis. Our mental health as well as our environment is being punished by the devastation that many reports bring. Our exposure to traumatic events can lead to so-called disaster fatigue, making us feel less than many would expect, leading to apathy, reduced levels of concern and ultimately less urgency about the situation at hand.

Regardless of where we live, and the environment we inhabit, we view outsiders as ‘other’ people that are like us but not ultimately the ‘same’ as us. Historically this was a sensible precaution. When visitors/invaders from a foreign land (only a hundred or so years ago a foreign land could well have been one within the borders of the same country but typically viewed as being different or one that felt suspicious). The residual impact of this view of our neighbour as ‘other’ means we feel greater levels of empathy for those we know, live near or feel we have an affinity with.

Somehow the suffering of someone in a country of different beliefs, a country that may be impoverished, a place of different traditions can feel less than our own. When we see floods devastating a third of Pakistan, we don’t envisage what it would be like to see a third of our own country underwater. When we read the story of Sugrah, a caring, studious, and joyous 12-year-old whose home has been swept away and now resides under canvas in the garden of her previously pristine home do we think of her as our daughter? I have a 12-year-old son and they are the same person, Sugrah and my son are the same. They may live thousands of miles apart, but the suffering Sugrah and her family feel is the same as the suffering my family and I would feel. There is no difference because of the language we speak, the colour of skin, the religion that is followed. The only difference is how we see. How we truly see.

The earthquake in Turkey and Syria brings last year brought this issue to life. Both countries have been devastated, with thousands of lives lost in each. However, the aid forthcoming, the treatment of the injured, and the reporting of the news have been very different. In Turkey, many of the aid agencies have been able to offer much-needed support. As of mid-February, two weeks after the event, the Disasters Emergency Committee announced £53 million had been raised in the UK alone for earthquake survivors. An anonymous US citizen based in Pakistan has donated $30 million and many people around the world have reached deep to offer what support they can.

As ever several considerations have come to light regards getting support to people. There is only one clear route into Syria (two new border crossings have since been added) and the North-West of the country being under ‘rebel’ control has not seen a visit from the country's government, unlike in Turkey. The people in this region have already been displaced by a decade-long civil war. At least 56,683 people lost their lives and many were injured or left at risk from freezing temperatures, a lack of support and the media heading to the airport to go and report from the next disaster zone from around the world.

We need to be aware without being overwhelmed. We should not ignore the challenges that face people from across the world. In countries we might never visit, countries we might not even be able to place on a map, there is poverty, hunger, displacement, climate disaster and sustainability challenges. We owe it to one another to learn as much as we can about the situation of others and to recognise that decisions we make may have an impact on others we cannot see.

Globalisation has driven vast change. We’ve experienced or at least been made aware of developments that have given us the opportunity to change lives. However, inequality is still something we are all too aware of. Inequality of opportunity, knowledge, and the means to make a change need addressing urgently. More than 200 million people across the world are unemployed, real wages are falling, and the world's wealthiest 10% have amassed 52% of global income.

We see the news, and we know what’s happening, yet we fail ourselves if we do not call for increased social justice across our world. Our place of birth should not determine our future but in many locations it does.

To truly embrace empathy, we must view others as we view ourselves and our loved ones. Our neighbour is not only the person that lives next door but also the person in the next city, the next country, the next continent.

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