Monday, November 16, 2015

Paris, Beirut, and Priorities.

I have seen a number of posts recently lamenting the uneven coverage that has been given to Beirut and Paris this weekend. I feel compelled to discuss this and to offer up my thoughts. Mostly because I see a lot of people attributing this uneven coverage to some very unpleasant reasons that are not entirely justified. This is much more complex than "the media doesn't care about brown people".

So I'm going to break the usual pattern of this blog to post something political. I want this to be someplace more permanent than a Facebook status.

For those who may stumble on this post from the future, or for whom this is their first contact with civilization in over a week, let me set the stage. Last week, there were two major terrorist attacks. A pair of bombs exploded in Beirut. A coordinated group of gunmen shot a large number of people in Paris. The Beirut bombings were a secondary story on most new networks, even before the Paris attacks started. They were less interesting than what Ben Carson had said about West Point. When Paris happened, though, the world stopped and stared. World leaders tumbled out of bed to offer condolences. Social media exploded with horror, outrage, and astonishment. People were changing icons and posting memes in support. Beirut was still only a blip, and mostly only even mentioned by people in or from Beirut.

Why the discrepancy? Why did Paris' pain cause so much more of a reaction? I see four pillars on which this rests.

We'll start with the largest pillar, the elephant in the room. People in Beirut are howling "racism", but it is more properly called "tribalism". See, it goes far beyond white versus brown. It also entails Christian versus Muslim. European versus Middle Eastern. If my friend dies, this is going to mean more to me than if my neighbor that I don't know dies. Because it is closer to me. It has more emotional weight. France has been an ally of the US since the very founding of our country. Indeed, we would not be a country without their assistance against the British. So they are our friend in a way that Lebanon is not and never can be. Is this right? Is it moral? Of course not. A human life should not have more value simply because it is more like you. But it does, because we are wired that way.

The difference goes far beyond that, though. There are three more pillars, and the second has to do with the very nature of Paris versus Beirut. Beirut is a city. A major city, true, but just a city. Paris is an icon. People dream their whole lives about going to Paris. They make movies and write songs about Paris. It exists in a class of legendary cities with the likes of London, New York City, and Tokyo. The very name of the city evokes an emotional reaction even in people who have never gone there. Attacking Paris is more than just an injury to the people of France, it is an insult to a part of our cultural collective. Had they attacked Marseilles or Calais, the world would like not have reacted as strongly. (As an example, look at the way in which DC is constantly ignored when it comes to discussing the events of 9/11.) And, of course, this is precisely why the terrorists chose it as a target. Their entire goal is emotional reaction.

The third pillar is a bit fuzzy. But there is a fundamental difference between the way that a bombing is reported and the way that a shooting, particularly one involving hostages, is reported. The timeline for a bombing only has two sections: before, when everything is peaceful; after, when everything is being cleaned up. The timeline for a shooting has a period of time during which things are happening and people are reacting and the action is crazy and oh my god which way do I go what do I do. That longer section during which up-to-the-minute reporting is actually useful causes the news media to pounce. And once they have pounced, they work hard to ramp up the emotional investment to keep people watching. Paired with the first two pillars, it is much easier to motivate eyeballs to stay on your screen and links to your site to get shared when you can provide both emotional resonance and useful updates.

The fourth pillar is the smallest, and possibly redundant. But I think that it's worth mentioning, if only for airing my own personal prejudices. For people of my generation (Gen X) and older, Beirut has associations of being a war zone. I fully realize, intellectually, that this information is a couple decades out of date. But I can also tell you that when I saw a travelogue on Beirut a couple years ago, I was stunned. Despite years of peace and rebuilding, I was still expecting to see bombed out buildings and desperate people hurrying through the streets. That, and the bombing of US Marines, were the images I associated with Beirut. So hearing that bombs had exploded in Beirut has roughly the same emotional weight as hearing that US soldiers were killed in Afghanistan. Same shit, different day. It wasn't until I started actually looking at the issue that I realized that Lebanon has been largely safe from these kinds of attacks for nearly a full generation. That's on me, and my ignorance. I grant that. But it is part of why Paris is a headline and Beirut is a side note.

When we look at these four pillars, one thing is blazingly obvious. They are built of crap. Tribalism, sentimentality, sensationalism, and ignorance. No rational human being should allow themselves to be sucked into this kind of thinking. But I have a news flash for you: there's no such thing as a rational human being. We are emotional creatures. Calling attention to our slipshod thinking and irrational reactions may be a good thing. Dropping a knee-jerk accusation of racism is unhelpful, inaccurate, and serves to do little but deepen the very divide that the terrorists hope to exploit.

So let's try something. I will acknowledge that the reactions are lopsided, and that lopsided reactions are not a good thing. You try acknowledging that no insult was intended. I will offer an apology (for what little that means, given my non-existent role in control of the media). You accept my apology. We move forward in an attempt to reduce anger and hatred in the world instead of reacting to events such as these by tearing each other apart.

And maybe someday, no one will have to get blown up, shot, or otherwise made into a victim at all. What will the media report on then?

No comments:

Post a Comment