We all saw it coming. The spires of Notre Dame hadn’t even collapsed yet before netizens began churning out woke commentary comparing the global outcry over a fire-ravaged cathedral to our less animated response toward ongoing disasters like poverty, famine, and single-use plastics.
If you’re feeling a bit of déjà vu, you’re not alone. We saw the same counter-reaction surface when the world came together to mourn the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks. The internet’s social justice wing leapt at the chance to juxtapose overwhelming public sympathy with Paris with cold indifference to attacks that claimed many more lives around the same time in Iraq and Nigeria .
Here’s the thing. Empathy doesn’t work that way. We don’t grieve by the magnitude of importance. Sympathy is not denominated in numbers. We reacted to the loss of a building more strongly than to the loss human lives because we were familiar with it.
Paris is a universal experience – the most visited city in the world, and Notre Dame is one of its dominant experiences. Hundreds of millions of people can claim some personal connection to the cathedral – whether a photo in their camera roll, or a vacation long ago, or just childhood memories of the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Concurrent atrocities in, say, Yemen are far more tragic and important, and yet also much less familiar to a global audience. Regrettably, empathy doesn’t travel this way.
For those of us who have never stepped foot in Paris, myself included, Notre Dame represents an opportunity lost forever. You cannot replace an original masterpiece from 1160 AD and expect to recuperate all of its historical mystique. This feeling of irretrievable loss recalls the 2015 destruction of the ancient city of Palmyra by ISIS and the 2001 destruction of the Bamyan Buddhas by the Taliban.
The world lost priceless heritage in both cases, but with considerably less outcry because they occurred in active war zones where the world expected nothing less than anarchy and destruction – which brings us to a second point; Notre Dame’s collapse is newsworthy because it is completely unexpected.
We have lost many European cathedrals to fire before, but really? In 2019? In Paris? With all the modern precautions in place? The cathedral’s continued existence was never in question.
Most disasters in contemporary European or American society are fairly trivial in a historical or global context. OECD societies today are so removed from and sensitized to mass destruction that hearing of just a fragment of such in other OECD societies shocks us in ways that atrocities in Libya or the Congo never do. We will always overreact to news of the familiar and proximate and under-react to the foreign and remote.
Whether the news out of Paris upset you because you have a personal connection with Notre Dame or simply because you hoped you one day would, there is nothing wrong with that. You are just doing what humans do. As long as you stay engaged with more substantial issues, then no harm done.