What the fires in Lebanon reveal about who gets our compassion
For nearly 24 hours now, several Lebanese villages south of Beirut have been on fire.
Wildlife, trees, homes, cars, people — burning.
But where are the headlines? The massive donations? The hashtags?
When people realized the Amazon was on fire, you couldn’t watch American television or scroll Facebook for two minutes without encountering some form of vitriol. The burning of Notre Dame moved billionaires and you-and-me’s alike to throw money toward its restoration. And while it’s easy to point a finger at the media for a disparity in coverage, the case of these fires more importantly calls for critical self-examination on what we choose to care about and why.
Is empathy bounded by limits or choice?
The question of whether or not human empathy has limits is widely debated amongst psychologists. Some will argue we are biologically hardwired to feel empathy toward individuals over masses, or toward people who feel “similar” to us in some way. But the reality is that we still have the capacity to choose what we turn our attention to, even if we might be inclined to lean a certain direction.
When news broke of the two famous fires this year as mentioned above (the Amazon rainforest fires and the Notre Dame Cathedral fire), the American public felt a collective sadness. We changed our profile photos in solidarity with France and made “how to help the Amazon stop burning” a trending Google search. We rallied. We raised awareness. We raised money.
It begs the question, however, as to why we were so moved to action by these two incidences — the Amazon had already been burning due to illegal logging operations, and the Notre Dame is of no major cultural significance to the United States. What made them different from any of the other wild and urban fires that devastated ecosystems and human communities this year and every other?
The answer looks, unsurprisingly, like the face of a celebrity. Or in these two cases, many celebrities.
“Trusted” voices and the influence of fame
Among other things, the presence of a trusted or admired voice in conversation is a proven motivator of change. When people hear information from someone they look up to, they are more likely to listen to and be persuaded by that information than if they heard it from, say, someone they don’t like. We all know this on a subconscious level, but we sometimes fail to recognize a gap between who we believe to be these trusted voices and who we actually allow ourselves to be influenced by. And in a culture that props celebrities on the saddles of an ever-growing high horse, it comes as no shock that these influences are often tainted by a romanticism of fame.
The celebrity presence behind the commentary on the Brazilian and French fires cannot be denied. Vanessa Hudgens, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kathy Griffin, Bobby Berk, Miguel, and Madonna are just a few of the big names who expressed outrage at the burning of the Amazon. Cher, Idris Elba, the Obamas, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Laura Dern lamented Notre Dame. And in turn, we did so too. Not in malice, of course. But we followed.
Yet as the most extreme wildfires in decades continue to rage in the unique and bewildering mountains of Lebanon, we find mostly silence in the celebrity Twittersphere. And, consequently, we find silence in our own hearts.
It is only natural that we tune in to certain voices over others, and it is similarly natural that we cannot care about every issue faced by the billions of living and nonliving things on this planet. But even knowing this, we must take a look at what is motivating our attitudes, our values, and our actions and ask ourselves why it is so.
There is no harm in being motivated by celebrities, especially when it results in positive outcomes. The problem is unearthed when we become reliant on the outcries of such figures to determine who and what we care about.
Tonight there will be people suffering at the hands of flames once again. I emplore us all to ask ourselves: will their voices be heard?