When selective empathy ignores global suffering



The phenomena of recent decades that is continuous ‘breaking news’ and expanding social media allows the world to watch with fear and loathing as Ukrainian people — going on about their every-day lives only a few weeks ago — are now seeking shelter from Russian airstrikes in underground train stations and making Molotov cocktails to launch against Russian tanks rolling in on once peaceful streets. Men saying goodbye to their mothers, wives and daughters at a border crossing before going back to join their beleaguered brothers in arms.

Collectively we have responded with condemnation, compassion and support for Ukrainians and the determined President Volodymyr Zelensky; equalled only by our utter contempt for Putin whose bombing of a maternity hospital is repellant to all.

Not closing air corridors and arguments about neutrality aside, many countries have opened their doors to Ukrainian refugees, with the numbers fleeing at three million and rising. The exception, arguably, is Britain’s Home Secretary Priti Patel raising concerns with our Government that our “open-door policy for the refugees could potentially endanger the UK”. That Downing Street is worried about migrants reaching the UK via the back door. Her remarks have been roundly condemned in the Dail as “disgusting”.

For the rest of us, our collective outcry is exactly the damning indictment one would hope to see when people are fleeing for their very lives. That said, there is debate among a very good few across all media, of all leanings, about the West’s portrayal of Ukraine’s plight as somehow “different” and labelling Ukrainians as more “civilised” compared to those suffering from wars in countries like Yemen, Libya, Ethiopia, Syria, and Palestine, although there has always been strong support in Ireland for Palestinians.

The other night one veteran American TV reporter, describing the Ukrainian crisis, said: “This is not Iraq or Syria… this is a civilised and European country.”

Ukraine’s very own Deputy Chief Prosecutor emphasised European ‘white’ features when he said: “This is very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed.” Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said: “These people are intelligent, they are educated people. This is not the refugee wave we have been used to, people we were not sure about their identity, people with unclear pasts, who could have been even terrorists…”

The chairman of the Foreign Affairs committee of the French National Assembly, one Jean-Louis Bourlanges, speaking on TV the other night, said: “This is going to be an immigration of great quality, intellectuals that we will be able to take advantage of.”

What can I say? Not only is it shameful to treat refugees as a resource to be exploited for one’s own benefit but the statement itself is steeped with a racist, colonial mindset, one that looks to place an assigned value on people’s worth.

Some will balk at this insinuation, refuse to acknowledge there may well be double standards at play here. The thought is uncomfortable. Others in this debate about our selective empathy say it is hard to hear the condemnations of Putin’s Russia by the US — a country that has just as ruthlessly and indiscriminately bombed innocent civilians, invaded and occupied countries throughout its history and continues to supply much of the hardcore weapons used in many global heinous slaughters this very moment.

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.

To us here and to all Europeans, Ukraine is geographically and even culturally close and so is the war. Refugees are no longer crossing continents but rather several hundred miles. In my column of two weeks ago I asked: “What’s next? Where will Putin stop?”

The Ukraine invasion and mass refugee exodus has disturbed our sense of complacency that wars in ‘our’ part of the world are a matter of the past. That wars in Yemen, South Sudan or Syria do not affect us. Perhaps not, but they do affect those countries’ — and myriad others’ — people with murdering and maiming. People going about their every-day lives.

Just like the ‘white, blue-eyed’ Ukrainians.

Just like you and I.

I would like think the massive (and deserved) coverage given Ukraine by all media here and throughout the ‘West’ would from here on be given to all wars and conflict everywhere.

But I’m not holding my breath anytime soon…

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