When more than 40 people were killed in a terrorist attack in Beirut, it barely made news. When terrorists attacked Paris, it was full-on news. People changed their Facebook ID photos to stand in solidarity with France. Not so much Beirut.
Most people didn’t know about Beirut. Or thought it was one of those vague countries “over there” that is always at war anyway. Paris, we know about. Paris is a Western European country, so we care about it more. We know people from there; we have traveled there; Paris is aligned with American culture. So the anguish seems more understandable. We know more about it.
It’s not surprising that we want to sympathize with people more like us. Most people divide the world into “them” and “us.” People on the “us” side are thought of as good, kind, worthy, deserving, and worth supporting. People on the “them” side are untrustworthy, possibly terrorists, potentially dangerous, and we need to get rid of them.
The trouble with “them” and “us” tactics, is, well, they are short-sighted. In Phoenix, 139 different languages are spoken at home as the primary, non-English language. In Fairfax, Virginia, 170 languages besides English are spoken in homes.
America is, like it or not, a country of immigrants. It is, in my opinion, the very reason we are an advanced country. And largely, a compassionate country. Immigrants are people who want a better life; they are willing to sacrifice what they had to work hard in a strange land.
The world is not as foreign as it once was. Travel has created a smaller world. We are all citizens of the world. There are problems that face every country, right now: hunger, lack of equal opportunities for women, lack of decent education for children, climate change, war. The misery list goes on.
We are Parisians, we are citizens of Beirut. We want to show compassion, we want to help. Putting the French flag over your face does not raise awareness, it simply makes people who do it feel they have done something. The trouble is, feeling self-satisfied over a semi-transparent flag is, in its own way, dangerous. Feeling self-satisfied always is. We fall into the trap of thinking “Well, that’s done. I’ve made someone else aware.” But you haven’t. You’ve just sat down at the cool kids’ table. We learned way back in 7th grade that sitting at the cool kids’ table did not make us cool.
How can you help France? Here is a list of charities in France that could use help.
But there is something you can do without spending money. You can take a look at your attitude. You can see where you
divide your friends, your family, your co-workers into “them” and “us.” You can stop drawing conclusions without information. (Example: a woman begging on the street has a smart phone. Easy to condemn her, she has “too much.” If she is poor, she doesn’t deserve a smart phone. Several charities give smart phones to victims of domestic violence. Maybe that woman got a phone, but that’s all she has.)
It is very easy to decide who is right and wrong, good and bad, worth and unworthy by shortcuts. So we look at someone who is not like us–a different color, wearing a head scarf, overweight, badly dressed–and dismiss them as not worthy, less than, non-deserving. That thinking is something we can change. It’s hard. Every time you think of someone as lesser, you ask “why is this true for me?” “What else can I think that is less about my likes and dislikes and has a bigger view?’
Changing your thinking is a lot harder than putting a French flag over our FB avatar. It’s also more long-lasting and can bring real change, not just awareness.
Gandhi said, “Your beliefs become your thoughts; your thoughts become your words; your words become your actions; your actions become your habits; your habits become your values; your values become your destiny.”
You can change your destiny. Start soon, there is a lot of work to get done.
—Quinn McDonald is a writer who teaches writing.