Paris, moral one-upmanship and the self-righteous

Two days after the heinous crimes against humanity in Paris, Europe is still trying to come to terms with what this might mean for its future. I’m not going to add my voice to the mass of people talking about possible causes or how we should respond; firstly as this field is largely populated by victim-blamers, racists and denialists and secondly because I don’t wish to use such horror to make political points. What I do wish to comment on, however, is the unsavoury and downright distasteful phenomenon of people lambasting their fellows for caring about Paris but “not caring” about terrorist attacks further afield. I should clarify that I am not taking aim at people who are including attacks in Beirut, Baghdad etc in their messages of sympathy, but those who are specifically calling out people for showing their solidarity with only Paris. What makes this particularly grating is of all the people I have seen doing this, I have never seen a single one of them show their solidarity or sympathy for victims of terror further afield before the Paris attacks, but only now when they have a chance to use it to show their moral virtue.

While these comments may be purporting to be make some kind of grand statement about the person’s great humanity, they really are not. It’s a simple game of moral one-upmanship which is more than unedifying at such a tragic time. Not only is it distasteful, but the thinking behind it is completely flawed. When any event happens, great or tragic, there are two things that determine our response to it: proximity and precedence. We ask how close to our lives the event was and how unique. When tornadoes strike in Tornado Valley every year, we in the UK may be momentarily sad if we catch it on the news, but then we forget about it. Why? Because we don’t think this makes it any more likely that we will experience a natural disaster in Swindon, and in Tornado Valley tornadoes are, well, pretty frequent. Likewise this is the reason we do not mourn every road traffic death in the UK: the frequency of news makes it less pertinent. Unfortunately, terrorist horrors in the middle-east are common, and, although they are no less awful and heinous than the Paris attacks, we cannot pretend to be as shocked by news of them when they happen weekly rather than twice a decade.

This makes for a reality which, however sad, is still fact. The reason the attacks on Paris horrify us so much is that we have never seen a great European city attacked in such a way. As residents of peaceful countries, we do not expect to see our streets ripped apart by bullets and explosives. Likewise, Paris is only two hours away on the Eurostar, and Londoners who witnessed the atrocity of 7/7 are grimly reminded of the danger they still face. Granted, the fact that we do not have to worry constantly about such threats shows how lucky we are, and that we really should increase our efforts to do something about the horrible reality many have to face, but being more shocked and affected when the attacks are in a country geographically and culturally close to our own in no way calls our moral integrity into question.


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The Condition of the Left in England

'A grotesque mixture of Enlightenment Liberalism, One-Nation Conservatism and Socialism.' Skeptic and linguaphile.

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