Istanbul and the empathy gap: Why was the West's response muted compared to Paris or Brussels?

Our brains are wired to feel more empathy for people who look like us. Luckily, we're capable of closing the gap

Published July 3, 2016 1:00PM (EDT)

A woman reacts as Family members, colleagues and friends of the victims of Tuesday blasts gather for a memorial ceremony at the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, Thursday, June 30, 2016.   (AP/Emrah Gurel)
A woman reacts as Family members, colleagues and friends of the victims of Tuesday blasts gather for a memorial ceremony at the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, Thursday, June 30, 2016. (AP/Emrah Gurel)
Even a cursory glance at social media and the 24-hour news cycle after the carnage in Orlando, Brussels and Paris revealed outrage and solidarity. Televisions were teeming with stories and images of the unconscionable horror and social networks were flush with hashtags, memes and flags. As the atrocities began to mount in Istanbul only days ago after another suicide attack, they were surely certain to elicit similar coverage and sympathy. For remorse over the loss of a life isn’t contingent on its location. Yet in the aftermath of Istanbul’s terror attack, the only things trending on Facebook were Cheetos, Taylor Swift and a man who had jumped into a pool filled with Coca-Cola and Mentos. These 41 dead and 239 injured couldn’t even crack the top ten.
The lives lost on June 28th include teachers, a young woman working part-time to pay her university tuition, a father expecting his second child and a man who was due to be married in ten days. Their stories are the stories of countless others who have similarly lost their lives in heinous terrorist attacks in American and European cities. Despite this humanity, the disparity in the response to Turkey’s tragedy has been stark. Media coverage has remained muted comparatively and there was no prominent television network personality like Anderson Cooper on the ground in Istanbul. British Prime Minister David Cameron, who once raised the Belgian flag above Downing Street after the Brussels attack, only offered lukewarm words. Similar to many prominent buildings and towers around the world, The World Trade Center, which was lit up in France’s and Belgium’s colors after attacks, remained dark. Likewise, the dearth of #prayforistanbul and few Turkish flags on view in profile pictures only made the empathy gap more palpable.

Though many reasons can be posited for this yawning gap, the most cogent explanation relates to expectations. Western societies often view areas like the Middle East, Africa or Pakistan as being unstable and perpetually embroiled in conflict. When viewed through this prism, violence and death are understandable and thus considered a normal part of life here. Though sad, it is merely seen as just another day in this part of the world. And so Beirut, Syria, Yemen and Nigeria become expected and we are automatically inured to their suffering, leaving our scarce stores of empathy intact. As Rafia Zakaria wrote in the wake of a recent suicide bombing in a park of Lahore that claimed the lives of twenty-nine children, “for much of the world, the deaths of Pakistani children are forgettable. They are, after all, the progeny of poor distant others destined to perish in ever more alarming ways.” Those not so distant or different from us, however, garner our sympathies more readily.

Studies done on the brain are revealing here. Observing the pain of others stimulates sensory and emotional areas of the brain (anterior cingulate cortex and insula cortex) that have been associated with empathy. Research using functional MRI (fMRI) to assess brain activity by changes in blood flow has shown that activation of these areas is contingent on the race of the observed person, such that observing someone of one’s own race in pain leads to greater activity in these empathy centers of the brain compared to a person of a different race. People will be more empathetic towards the suffering of someone from their own race or ethnic group. Death of an own-race person from a terrorist attack is thus more likely to be viewed as a tragedy as opposed to the death of an other-race person from a similar cause. Yet fortunately, our ability to empathize is entirely capable of overcoming the confines of race.

study published in 2015 examined Chinese students who had emigrated to Australia within the past six months to five years to assess whether their abilities to empathize with other-race individuals had improved over time with increased exposure. The participants watched videos of own-race/other-race individuals receiving painful or non-painful touch. As expected, the racial bias was evident and these Chinese students had a greater brain or neural response when observing pain in own-race compared to other-race individuals. However, significantly greater empathy for other-race individuals was observed in Chinese students who had increased contact with different races over time. Just normal, everyday contact with individuals of other races was found to be sufficient in order to achieve this heightened level of empathy and more personal or intimate experience was not necessary. Simple exposure to people of other races thus shows that they are no different from us and inevitably engenders more empathy for their pain.

The empathy gap seen in Istanbul becomes troubling given the specter of a Trump presidency and the emergence of xenophobic and nativist sentiments across Europe that recently contributed to Brexit. As we grapple with the natural inclination of our brains to empathize with the grievances and pain of those similar to us and dangerously gravitate towards a world of exclusion and callousness, the underwhelming media and social response after Istanbul is accentuated. Further, it encourages the belief that Musims are solely viewed as purveyors of terrorism and not deserving of sympathy, even though the violence of ISIS has claimed more Muslim lives than western ones. The narratives of Istanbul’s victims confirm that these were individuals who held aspirations no different from a resident of Chicago or Barcelona. The brain has demonstrated the ability to appreciate this common humanity and close the empathy gap. This may be a prudent time to follow the brain over our hearts, which seem to have been taken over by the demagogues.

By Jalal Baig

Jalal Baig is a physician and writer. He is currently a hematology/oncology fellow at University of Illinois Hospital–Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @jalalbaig.

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