I don't often write about heavy subjects, I suppose because I'm aware that we are bombarded by hard-hitting news on a daily basis, but I'm also acutely aware of the desensitization that comes along with it. After so many stories of destruction and death, especially from parts of the world we may never visit, it's easy to turn off, to see the numbers and statistics as just that. Yet I see so many people - friends and acquaintances, news reporters and celebrities - 'standing' in solidarity with particular events and peoples, but not others. What does this say about us and the way we see the world we live in?
On the 17th of March the US-led coalition in Iraq launched an airstrike on a neighbourhood of Mosul that, though it targeted fighters from the Islamic State, led to the deaths of 200 civilians. In recent days people have disputed numbers, responsibility, and even cause, but it doesn't change the fact that hundreds of people died, with more wounded and psychologically scarred. We cry out, "I stand with Paris", "I stand with Brussels", and "I stand with London", but why not with Mosul? Or Zimbabwe? Or South Sudan?
See in your mind the street where you grew up. Walk outside of where you lived, take in the view from left to right. See your neighbours across the street, hear the birds, the sounds of life, perhaps your parents talking in the background. Imagine the smells, the feel of the air and the ground beneath your feet.
Then imagine a sound; a roaring, screeching sound, so loud that it shatters the windows of your house, forcing you to cover your ears, throwing you to the ground. In an instant the street you had in your mind has changed, its façade ripped away; the houses in front of yours are now rubble; trees obliterated; glass rains down like hail. As you come to, you realise that your own house is also gone, those inside most likely dead or dying, the people who made up your universe snuffed out like a candle's flame.
You just put yourself in the shoes of Munatha Jasim. She lost nine relatives that day, two of them her own children. She didn't lose a statistic; she lost her world. We read these numbers like they're just that - numbers - but if we see that each one is as our friend, our brother, our sister, then it changes everything.
Perhaps the reason we stand with those we don't know in Paris or London is because somehow those places are more 'relatable'? The people look a little more like us, the history we learn in school speaks kindly of their struggles and victories, their contributions to our societies are more 'valid'. Their landmarks are romanticised, their arts and sciences recognised, their culture far from demonised. The Middle East has, like other parts of the world, been presented as the antithesis of the Western world, from its language and customs, to its philosophies and viewpoints. The more our systems of education and our media present them as the 'other', the more we subconsciously develop a bias against the people who inhabit a part of the world that, among other things, has given us the building blocks of modern mathematics and medicine, the genius of Steve Jobs and Andy Serkis, and almost every religion we subscribe to; I think we forget that Christ, who is touted as a bedrock of the US conservative philosophy, was born there.
This is not to say that we shouldn't stand with those affected in places we're familiar with; far from it, but we should also cry out when others who we share this planet with suffer. We are all citizens of a single planet and injustice to one is injustice to all, regardless of who they are; the pain you feel when you truly work on empathising with victims of violence testifies to this fact. We should also strive to become openly aware of our biases, to learn deeply about other cultures - and our own. This is the 21st century, a time when we have access to more information than at any other time in history, and it's high time we took advantage of that.
At the end of the day I have to think about what I'm doing personally to effect change. It's easy to talk, to observe, to call things out - it only takes a few seconds to react in words. Meaningful action, however, takes time and energy, often a lot more than we're willing to accept. First, I need to accept the fact that I can't do everything; my first thoughts when I'm confronted by atrocities often revolve around me not seeing any way I can actually do anything. How can I stop the bombs, the deaths, or the poverty? I'm learning more and more than truly fixing something means learning about the root causes, not just the symptoms. Much of what we face comes from a lack of basic humanity, knowledge, empathy, compassion, and a stress on whose culture is the lead protagonist in our world's story. In light of that I realise that true change must come from a community, grassroots level; a government might decree that something is unjust or unlawful, but unless people like you and me actually want to effect that change it won't make a difference. I've not only started to read a lot more about the histories and cultures that we treat as less-than, but I've made more of an effort to engage with people of different cultures on a daily basis, to start conversations, to talk about history and society; your whole worldview is flipped when you realise that Alexander the Great was only great for the people his conquests benefited, and not for those whose culture, cities, and religion he destroyed. Now is the time to cast aside our limited ideas of what the world looks like, both historically and in the present, and see that our future depends on us building an inclusive, accepting society, the likes of which we've never seen before.