Because the social struggle for understanding and inclusiveness is inherently pacifistic, its adherents have little outlet for the goblins of their personalities. Luckily, we have self-righteousness and passive aggression to fill the void, and if nobody of an alternate political persuasion will listen, we’re happy to turn to our neighbors and try to sift through their beliefs and blind spots until a nugget of inferiority can be plucked, cut, and buffed into a bright moral failure.
Hence despite my carefully tended bubble of progressive thought in the near geographic center of the secular capital of America, I get a steady trickle of investments in my guilt index. Most recently, Aleppo was mentioned during an election year, so it got its chance to spike in the public consciousness, and now anonymous strangers are taking screenshots of text rants asking why I don’t feel bad enough about it and why there’s no Facebook filter for it.
There’s a lot to unpack, but start with why Facebook isn’t humanity’s mom. There’s no filter with which to express digital solidarity because there’s no simple set of colored bars associated with the issue, with which to express solidarity with even less effort than a hashtag. Also, the first filters didn’t work out too well for Facebook since everybody started asking why they don’t have a filter for everything that happens in the world. Facebook is a business that sells freely given information to advertisers. As a beast unlike any before it, maybe it does have some responsibility to do something about something, but everybody freaks out when they so much as change a button design. Whatever they do, it will never change the fact that the Facebook most of us log in to is a packing plant and its users are the cattle.
I didn’t cry for Paris. Not because it wasn’t a shock. Not even because it wasn’t personal; I knew someone in the area who locked herself in a basement for four hours. I don’t cry much, but it was easy to empathize, briefly, because I’ve been to Paris. I could walk the streets in my own memory, drink coffee in the cafés where people bled to death. I’ve been to shows in clubs, so I could picture a crowd of my friends begging for their lives, with no idea what to do or where to run. The life just before the attack looked like mine. The death looked like the death I see in my own fear. That fear is probably similar to a lot of the fear felt by people with a computer and a Facebook account: the buried, statistically irrational concern that our relative comfort might be violently upset.
Aleppo is a siege. It’s a war zone mapped over a civilian zone. It ranks among the greatest horrors the modern world is capable of delivering. I don’t know how to think about that. 400,000 people have died. Somebody’s getting up very early in the morning. It’s too much, so the mind abstracts it away. Our collective world civilization has spent 70 years trying to comprehend the incomprehensible spiritual devastation of the Holocaust. We know we must, yet we cannot, so we lock our memories in memorials: sacred abstractions that help us forget while there are still people alive who can’t. To say I empathize with that scale of pain and death would be an insult to a child figuring how to feel when the latest bomb kills her neighbor, or her parents. I can’t get inside her mind anymore than the mind of the person bombing the doctors trying to help the last people he bombed. I’m glad for both limitations on my imagination.
The most effective bridge between my life and one so alien is to tell some small story involving family and water, some laughter, conservative use of tears, and some distant looks at something 30 degrees right of the camera. Maybe this helps people who really don’t understand that people who speak a different language are still people. Empathy is an effective motivator, but the more sensitive someone is to it, the faster they find a way to turn it off. It can be psychic torture so intense it becomes physical; nausea and twitching and tingling pain made of imagined futures and remembered injuries. Exploiting the imagery of real pain is powerful but numbing. Attaching a stranger’s pain to something we can relate to makes it personal, but over time conditions us to make it not personal. When it is personal, we’re encouraged to desensitize. Nobody can live with unending internalized tragedy. You raise the bar on what fazes you until things stop getting worse or the bar breaks.
Any human that truly empathized with a pinch of a fraction of the pain that occurs in the world every ten minutes would have a stroke. Sympathy is an individual’s best option, but that doesn’t do any more good than faked empathy masquerading in eloquence and outrage. Telling anyone they don’t feel bad enough—or that they aren’t properly publicizing how bad they should feel—encourages them to prepare a defense for their ability to smile through another day. It encourages them to find unnecessary arguments for their inability to perform an impossible emotional feat, and once found, those arguments work just as well to rationalize away the effort to perform the simple emotional feats that affect the people around them.
Empathy is a limited resource. It can be replenished and expanded through learning, but it degrades in its use. I stretch it to imagine what it feels like to be pulled over while black, or to walk down a unlit city street as a woman, and these are things people in my life deal with every day. I can’t experience it the way they do; I can only try to understand, share in the emotions they express to me, and occasionally find a way to share what safety I have.
Meanwhile, I listen to the twin tinnituses of advice people spout for social profit: feel better about yourself, but feel worse about something else. Cut toxic people out of your life, but watch a few videos about how efficiently we’re killing trees, cows, fish, and each other. Have no regrets, but mourn the actions of others. Oscillate constantly between distancing yourself from the difficulties of the people around you, but be sure to beat yourself up trying to understand people on the other side of the world. Both are impossible. Both of them do wonders for your social media brand. Both of them shred whatever humanity we might have left, as both make us shut down the ability to relate, rendering us more and more helpless in managing our own inner lives, much less understanding anyone else’s.
The rising feeling of helplessness is in lockstep with the rising complexity of the world. Apathy and despair trail along behind it, parasites infecting anyone who can’t find a way to help. Not feeling bad enough isn’t the problem. Not knowing about all the disasters in the world isn’t the problem: the mainstream media is a bogeyman; the actual media is trying to be enough like our social media feeds to stay relevant, because our media feeds are the media. Our media feeds are also full of celebrations of the failures of people we don’t like, polemic attacks on the character of our own allies, and didactic insistence that whatever we’re feeling is wrong. It’s naive cynicism born of digital jading, demanding emotions that can’t be demanded, creating an impotent rage trying to erase unnecessary shame.
Most people felt pretty bad most of the time even before they got a live feed of global suffering. I’m not sure what to do next, but it didn’t surprise me that empathy seemed to drain out the world. People began to see how much pain the world could provide, and turned away before they went mad. They shut their doors to block out the screaming; screaming louder won’t coax them out.