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Of Paris And The Empathy Police

If you depend on the Western media—there’s a reason why it is called the Western media and not the African or Asian or Oceanic media—to tell your stories properly for you, you are sitting on a very long thing

The bloody assault on Paris on Saturday, November 14, has led not only to the killing and maiming of hundreds of people from diverse social and racial backgrounds; it has also led to the unleashing of outrage on our social media timelines by irate members of the empathy police—outrage so preposterous one would have laughed it off if not for the gravity of the events it seeks to trivialise.

How dare you waste your sympathies on the Paris dead, those constables of the empathy police ask? Why not invest your sympathies in tragedies closer to home? As if regretting the murder of civilians in Paris—or the killings in Burundi and in Beirut—and mourning the carnage in North-East Nigeria are mutually exclusive. As if empathising with victims of multiple tragedies on different continents would suddenly overload and short-circuit their rickety neural wiring.

Patriotism is one of the rationalisations of those constables who have taken it upon themselves to police and delimit the boundaries of our empathy. They may as well proffer this Yoruba proverb as an encapsulation of their sentiment: Omo eni o le sedi bebere ka fi ileke si idi omo elomiran. But when did the reservoir of human empathy get so depleted that it became comparable to a limited number of waist beads which must be used to decorate the ample girth of one’s child rather than that of another person’s offspring?

Well, if the malady of tunnel vision afflicting those members of the empathy police has no remedy, they are free to continue seeing the limits of their humanity as coterminous with the boundaries of their continent or nation or ethnicity or village. So my dear constable of the empathy police, you may even opt to wail for no one else but yourself during your own funeral, if the laws of nature bend to grant you that privilege. What will not go unchallenged is your coming on social media to demand that we all take up compulsory residence with you in the groundnut shell you’ve chosen to reduce your universe to.

Another rationalisation is that people in the West treat casualties of violence that occurs in other parts of the world as “unmournable bodies”, to borrow a term from an article published in the New Yorker several months ago—a truly pathetic article written by an otherwise remarkable writer. The ideology of these members of the empathy police is so set in stone, like that of adherents to an unyielding belief system, that trying to show them the fickleness of that rationalisation would be as quixotic as attempting to shake the Kilimanjaro awake from its aeons-long slumber.

So let’s momentarily forget that Doctors Without Borders was founded after the Nigerian Civil War by Max Recamier and Bernard Kouchner—two French doctors who volunteered to treat civilians on the Biafran side of the war and were horrified by the deaths of dochildren on that side from starvation. Let’s forget the efforts of ordinary French people, as well as those of French intellectuals like de Beauvoir and Sartre, to put an end to the blockade of Biafra by federal forces during that war. One could mention the BringBackOurGirls campaign, the protests that held in Western cities against the Vietnam War, and the ongoing solidarity with the Palestinian cause, as well as other examples too numerous to list, but what’s the point? Let’s just assume, even if only for the purposes of analysis, that the constables of the empathy police are right.

Even if that were truly the case, retaliating by being indifferent to tragedies in the West would be the shabbiest of responses. It would turn the act of compassion into a transactional one, and it would turn empathy into mere merchandise to be traded and bargained for like yams in the open market. If the advocates for the establishment of that proposed bourse of human compassion need a motto, this Nigerian pidgin saying would serve: Do me, I do you; God no go vex. One just hopes that members of the empathy police realise that the titfor- tat game they are intent on playing—their avowed commitment to trading in the commerce of human emotions—would never make them better human beings than those they accuse of insensitivity to the pain of others; rather, it would make them worse.

Then there is the rationalisation that tragedies in the West should not be mourned because Western media do not give sufficient attention to tragedies in countries that are not part of the West. Surely, the media in the West need to be more balanced in their treatment of news from other parts of the world. Sometimes, they even deserve condemnation for their wilful distortion of other people’s reality to fit predetermined and simplistic narratives. Nevertheless, if you depend on the Western media—there’s a reason why it is called the Western media and not the African or Asian or Oceanic media—to tell your stories properly for you, you are sitting on a very long thing. Western media must be holding you in a bind so strong that you cannot but keep on believing that CNN and its ilk are the only creators of existential value and communal dignity. And if your moral choices depend on the number and variety of themes based on national flags that Facebook has made available for you to pimp up your profile picture with, you deserve nothing but pity and scorn.

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee,” said John Donne five centuries ago. If you can’t connect with that position, rest assured that you’re not alone. You’re in the same camp with Isis militants and other such unsavoury elements who place no value on the lives of people outside their group.

Finally, there is the claim by the empathy police constabulary that people who expressed solidarity with Paris are merely following the herd instinct— that “some people dey follow follow, dem close dem eye”, as Fela sang in “Mr. Follow Follow”. Accusing a diverse range of people—most of whom you don’t even know—of insincerity is not only an act of poor intellection; it is also one that is ethically repugnant. If there is a particular individual you believe is merely following the herd, why not confront that person directly with your evidence? One has to wonder if the labelling of multitudes as insincere by the blowhards of the constabulary is not just an act of psychological projection. Because was it not only after Facebook provided the option of using the French tricolor as a profile picture theme that the constables began using the flags of other countries as their profile pictures and themes? Who then is the patent mimic man? Who is the Mr. Follow Follow?

I have prayed for Paris, not in the narrow religious meaning of the word “pray” but in the broader sense of it—praying as wishing others well. (Was it not Voltaire, to stick with the French connection, who said: “To pray to God is to flatter oneself that with words one can alter nature.”) And I have not placed the translucence of the French flag over my profile picture only because I am no fan of sloganeering, not even in the figurative sense of doing so with images. However, I wouldn’t be averse to using the Facebook tricolor theme if I find it necessary—especially if it would make the constables of the empathy police even more irate.

“There is never any end to Paris”, wrote Hemingway in A Moveable Feast. People may choose to substitute “Paris” with other city or country names—it is a matter of choice. The empathy police should just not demand that we must make those substitutions. No one owes them that duty. And those constables have no right to place a fatwa against having “Paris” as an option in that quote. If I wanted to tweak that sentence of Hemingway, my modification would follow a different path. It would simply read thus: There is never any end to empathy.

– Rotimi Babatunde

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