When we are constantly being bombarded by tragedy, how do we learn to care?
The spectre of apathy is one that has haunted human rights activists and advocates for the longest time. However, the spectre itself is not difficult to ward off; it simply requires a degree of consistency and commitment.
The problem lies within all of us as much as it does with the advocates and activists themselves. Apathy, in this case, is informed by two things: The remoteness of the incident and the desensitization of a phenomenon.
Bombarded with tragedy
Effectively, if an incident does not directly impact us, or if we do not directly impact the incident, we typically do not take notice of it. Beyond the initial shock of the development of a humanitarian crisis, it is often the case that we retire such thoughts to the back of our minds, behind the trials and tribulations of our everyday lives.
In essence, we do not feel a responsibility to address the matter beyond simply responding to our sympathies towards the matter. What makes matters worse is the fact that these instances of grave human rights violations are not uncommon.
We are almost constantly bombarded with sensationalized news about the loss of lives or the unlawful detention or displacement of people all across the globe. Not only is it too much to keep up with, but also, there comes a point where the shock of the first instance so overshadows the subsequent ones, that we begin to overlook the gravity of the impacts of each separate incident.
No reason to care
The compounded effect of the two phenomena is that it ultimately disincentivizes engagement with the community that is impacted. This happens on multiple layers: First, the general public withdraws from engagement. That is to say, though the public will be confronted by these individual human rights transgressions as they occur, they will most likely put their maximum attention to a cause that either directly links them to the impacts or, with each exposure to a form of transgression, will begin to progressively lose interest in the matter.
Empathy, in this case, extends as far as the harm exhibited is on an individual or group of individuals that the public can relate to or understand enough. Even in a case where that empathetic link is evident, it is also true that constant exposure to such news stales the gravity of the impact of each transgression as reported.
Second, humanitarian organizations which work for these causes are limited by mandate. They are limited in their resources and will likely direct their resources to a cause that they feel directly responsible for addressing.
Alternatively, most of their resources will be directed towards a cause that either fosters the greatest amount of interest from the public or the incident that has the greatest visible impact.
This means that the general public and humanitarian organizations will lose their incentive to address a cause if such limitations are evident. If the public is disincentivized to care, then the humanitarian organizations will gradually lose their ability to address subsequent transgressions as they occur. The problem then becomes cyclical in nature.
Effectively, the actions of these humanitarian organizations are incentive-driven. The incentive to act is informed by virtue of public interest in an incident, which in turn informs their mandate. The cycle comes full circle when the interest of the public is then driven by their access to information regarding the incident.
While, in most cases, news portals will be the ones to deliver the sensationalized version of the incident, it is the work of the humanitarian organizations, active on the field, that helps drive the nuanced information which feeds the cause further.
The spectre of apathy is most vicious at this junction. The sensation draws everyone’s attention, aid begins to pour in, and people leap into action. Yet, as the problem is prolonged and inflated, news without nuance begins to flood the media, the white noise drowns out information. In turn, the interest of the actors fades away as the mandate from the public shifts back to their own troubles.
Not to say that this does not do something -- it does. When the earthquake struck Haiti, the nation was flooded with aid from all corners of the world. Rations and encashment ensured that people had immediate access to food and necessities. This worked for a while and allowed governments to focus on redeveloping infrastructure to address the matter.
However, when it comes to more prolonged problems like refugee crises, the story is altogether different. When the large-scale exodus of the Rohingya population occurred in 2017 and they found themselves displaced from their homes, fleeing into Bangladesh, they were met with sympathy and support. Aid flooded in and all humanitarian actors did what they could to help them.
However, as time passed, the complex problem of the Rohingya plight went largely ignored and the community was left stranded -- unable to go back to their homes, but also unable to assimilate and integrate into Bangladesh due to imposed restrictions.
As the problem grew more and more complex due to geopolitical, economic, and socio-legal problems, the attention of the public shifted in other directions. As did the mandate of the humanitarian organizations. A number of them withdrew from the scene, having done “all they could” under the circumstances.
Apathy grew, and the community has since then been subjected to a form of disenfranchizement not unlike what they faced in Myanmar. While the spectre cannot be solely blamed for this, the fact that it looms is bad enough.
This means that, in the space of time where the humanitarian actors are not present or unable to act as a result of their limitations, victims of crises suffer as more problems develop.
When the mandate is recovered and the actors are once again able to do their part, they would lack the information needed to provide adequate redress.
In the case of the Rohingya, this is evidenced by the recent interest of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and their investigation into the “situation,” which has largely been impeded by a lack of sufficient information.
However, information alone is not good enough. The information needs to foster a mandate to act within the public and the actors. It is argued that an agent’s moral obligation, with regards to the myriad actors within a given structure, extends to all whom the agent assumes in the conduct of their activity.
It is important to note that this practice occurs within a set of pre-existing structures which all individual actors not only act in but assume that the other acts in too. This social construct provides channels of actions for actors, both allowing them to act and restrain their actions.
It is also argued that people act presupposing the existence of this structure and hence perpetuate this construct. They do this because of certain rules and expectations of the construct and their constituted position within the structure that makes only a certain set of resources available.
This means that the actions of said actors have impacts beyond the initial intentions or purposes of their actions. The social connection posits the idea that, by virtue of being a part of that very social structure, we are all impacted by each other’s actions. The idea, therefore, is that we all share some degree of responsibility for all things that occur, even if that responsibility is indirect. The argument here would be that, even if we had not caused the incident, we condoned it merely by perpetuating the structure that allowed the incident to occur.
Who’s to blame?
The concept of liability alone is inadequate to combat the injustices that fester in the world. When harms result from the participation of thousands or millions of people in institutions and practices that produce unjust results, an isolating concept of responsibility is inadequate.
Where there is structural injustice, finding some actors guilty of perpetrating specific wrongful actions does not absolve others whose actions contributed to the outcome in other, indirect ways. The problem being that it attempts to identify a single actor or single group of individuals for a harm and demands that they provide redress for the matter.
However, this form of conceptualization limits the incentive one might bear to act. In effect, it fosters the idea that liability needs to exist for one to act and ignores the possibility that the existence of a wider network of connectivity and the perpetuation of injustice through inaction.
Not only does it create apathy, it also kills off altruism. Remoteness, an essence of the spectre, is therefore one that we empower through the perpetuation of social constructs and through our inaction.
Engage and act
Continuous, prolonged engagement with the affected community is how the spectre of apathy is combatted. While its exorcism is potentially much more difficult, this would be the first step in the right direction.
Where apathy is born of remoteness and desensitization, engagement and attachment, compounded by humanitarian advocacy and activism, are what can drive mandate and action. Reconceptualizing our positions in the social structure and recognizing that everyone, even if to the tiniest degree, plays a role in the lives of individuals they have never met, helps foster empathy.
One does not need to look to liability in order to address harms -- they only need to recognize the greater social connection. In doing so, regardless of all the noise, the incentive to learn the nuances of harms perpetuated by the structure begins to develop.
Injustice produced through structures is enduring. The point is not to blame, punish, or seek redress from those who “did it,” but to enjoin those who participate in the process of collective action to change it.
The point is to keep information alive through engagement, so that the nuances may be recognized and acted upon. The point is to drive mandate through understanding. The point is to care.
Ahmed Shafquat Hassan is a Barrister (Non Practicing) at the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple, and currently a student of International Law and Governance at Durham University.