Selective empathy is dangerous because it enables otherisation and racism on the basis of skin colour, religion and ethnicity.
Empathising with one group or cause and refusing that empathy to others has led to many atrocities in human history.
If one looks at famous Indian freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi's life, it's clear that the great global leader was driven by the idea of empathy for all. His teachings even encouraged empathy for enemies because he was deeply committed to humanity and always believed in softening the oppressor with love.
As Russia pounds Ukraine with missiles and cluster bombs, causing a new influx of refugees on European borders, a new debate holding Western media accountable for displaying selective empathy is shaping up.
While every Ukrainian refugee deserves a safe home, not just in Europe but in any other part of the world, their portrayal in Western media is a disservice to their suffering.
Many TV correspondents, particularly those who have white skin and blue eyes, have applied their racist lens to the crisis, describing the suffering of Ukrainian refugees as "different" from that of Arab, Asian or African refugees. In some cases, they unabashedly called the Ukrainian refugees "more civilised" than their non-European counterparts.
The double standards kept falling to new lows. Ukrainian civilians making Molotov cocktails and arming themselves with state-given machine guns were described as "freedom fighters" and "heroes," which from a neutral perspective is an apt description.
But the same Western media applies different framing while describing resistance movements in places like Palestine. They paint every Palestinian resisting Israeli occupation with arms with the same brush and conveniently label them as "terrorists" for defending their land.
Do you need to be a Middle Easterner to ‘qualify’ as a refugee?— TRT World (@trtworld) February 27, 2022
Some Western media outlets are receiving heavy criticism for 'racism' for their coverage of Russia’s attacks on Ukraine pic.twitter.com/JDjwdGZMoE
‘They watch Netflix’
Daniel Hannan’s article on the current Russia-Ukraine war published in the British Telegraph is one of the stark examples of selective empathy. He wrote: “They [Ukrainians] seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking. Ukraine is a European country. Its people watch Netflix and have Instagram accounts, vote in free elections, and read uncensored newspapers.”
Other journalists said the ongoing war was affecting the “civilised cities” and targetting the “blue-eyed and blonde-haired.” They also described Russia's military assault as the war against “Europe, not the third world,” while conveniently forgetting that Europe has been home to some of the worst wars and war crimes in human history, such as the Holocaust.
The Bosnian genocide in 1992 also included the ethnic cleansing, systematic mass rape and indiscriminate shelling of cities of “blue-eyed and blonde-haired” Muslims.
READ MORE: The four stages of Bosnian genocide denial
Notre Dame fire vs Sudan’s massacre
Another example of selective empathy is the Notre Dame fire and the Sudanese massacre in 2019. Even though both are important, it was noticeable how much money and sympathy a cathedral attracted within a matter of hours, while the brutal massacre unfolding in Sudan failed to generate any global outrage.
The military in Sudan then overthrew and arrested former president Omar al Bashir amid mass protests. The Transitional Military Council claimed it needs to be in charge to retain order and security in Sudan - but the death toll suggested otherwise. Hundreds have been killed or injured; thousands are missing.
Role of mainstream media
Minutes after Notre Dame was in flames, photos and videos were on all news platforms. This crisis left zero dead, three injured, and a burnt building behind.
Many took to social media stating reasons why Sudan was not getting media coverage: Because the victims were black Africans and Muslims.
The only light in the tunnel came in the form of some celebrities speaking up for Sudan. Musicians such as Demi Lovato, Cardi B, and J. Cole added blue to their social media profiles, encouraging thousands to show solidarity with Sudanese protesters with the #BlueforSudan campaign.
Racism and selective empathy
There is no problem with selective empathy itself as long as it doesn’t harm the “other.” Supporting one side in a sport and competing with scientific discoveries for instance, are useful and healthy for mankind.
It gets bad when the people in leadership positions normalise selective empathy and refuse to pay attention to issues that harm those they see as "others."
Palestinian writer Ahmed Abu Rtema tweeted about the refugee issue between Ukraine and some European countries, “We see differentiating between refugees according to their skin colour and allowing only white people to cross borders, this shows how racism is deeply rooted in the West.”
“It’s the same racism that produced colonisation and occupation in our lands. It’s the same racism that stole the resources of countries for hundreds of years.”
Reasons for selective empathy haven’t changed over the years. There is a need to belong to a group with whom you identify, who share your perspectives and experiences.
An Us vs Them mentality makes you feel like you’re part of an “us,” and it is easier to empathise with those with the same beliefs or backgrounds.
Selective empathy makes people conditioned to see some lives as inherently less valuable than others, which eventually leads to crimes against humanity.
The alternative is ‘belonging’
John A Powell, author of “Racing to Justice: Transforming our Concepts of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society,” said that “othering” is based on the conscious or unconscious assumption that a particular identified group poses a threat to the favoured group.
He explains that it is largely driven by politicians and the media instead of personal contact. Overwhelmingly, people don’t “know” those that they are “othering.”
If we are to combat extremism across the globe, we must actively create bridges across differences and resist strategic exploitation of our collective anxiety.
“For when we bridge, we not only open up to others, we also open up to change in ourselves – and actively participate in co-creating a society to which we can all belong,” Powell explained.
The opposite of “othering” is “belonging.” And belonging does not insist that we are all the same. It means we recognise and celebrate our differences in a society where “we the people” includes all the people.
Powell gives ways to change selective empathy. It’s never too late to learn how to exchange it for universal empathy. He recommends learning more about groups you’ve “othered” and how being marginalised — by you, by their own families, by your government, etc. — has affected them.
The best practice, according to Powell, is to use what resources are at your disposal and learn their stories. See how they differ from your own, as well as what they have in common with yours.
Reaching such universal empathy requires individual effort in learning about others and recognising in others what we are able to recognise in ourselves.
READ MORE: Ukraine refugees: where are they fleeing to?