One reason for this selective outrage is that local historical events are often interpreted in terms of grand global narratives. These narratives come and go with time, and they help to shape what events are considered important by placing them in an easily understood context.
In 19th century Britain, one powerful narrative was of the struggle between civilised man and the savage. It was politically convenient to depict colonial subjects in Africa, Asia and even Ireland as being backward and barbaric – childlike in their violence, superstition and the need of a firm guiding hand from their British superiors. In this context, violence by British colonists against natives could be underplayed, while violence by the 'savage' natives emphasised.
After World War II a new global narrative began to gain purchase: that of the Noble Savage living in harmony with nature and his neighbours, only to be brutally oppressed by decadent Europeans. This gives us another template to understand the world: whenever a Western country finds itself at war with a non-Western country, the former is an aggressive imperialist, the latter an innocent freedom-fighter.
These grand global narratives can be embraced by combatants in small, regional conflicts, in order to win popular support abroad. Hence I found myself surprised to see Communists from Pakistan and Canada cheering on Real IRA violence in Northern Ireland, because the Real IRA managed to present themselves as socialist freedom-fighters struggling against the old imperialist enemy of Britain. Without this Cold War-era narrative, Irish nationalist paramilitaries may have had difficulty in finding support abroad – the narrative allowed foreigners to slot Nationalists, Loyalists and the British government into general global roles of good and bad guys, victims and aggressors.
Symbols are more important than statistics here. The nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki attract more outrage than the more destrucive fire-bombing because the nuclear attacks are more symbolic – with the gloriously awful imagery of the mushroom cloud – and because they seemed to hint at future catastrophic violence. Yet this is a poor reason to become outraged when so many other World War II atrocities go ignored.
This also explains why the Danish Muhammad cartoons caused so much excitement and controversy: it fit a pre-existing grand narrative depicting Europeans as being engaged in a sneaky assault on Islam, another Crusade under the pretence of free speech. The cartoons were not automatically controversial, though, it needed the work of Danish imans who took them to Muslim countries and pushed a negative interpretation to stir up outrage. An Egyptian newspaper also ran the cartoons but Egypt was spared the outrage aimed at European countries where the cartoons ran – because Egypt didn't fit the narrative.
Some Muslims get enraged at Israel and NATO for violence against their Muslim brethren in Palestine, Iraq or Afghanistan. Meanwhile China and Burma oppress Muslim minorities without a whisper of discontent from abroad – China and Burma just don’t fit the pleasing narrative of Muslims being attacked by Westerners. Instead they present a much more awkward narrative, one rather difficult to manipulate: of Muslims being in conflict with everyone.
Israel is a perfect example of selective outrage. When a thousand people die violently in Israel or Palestine it becomes a much bigger story than ten thousand in sub-Saharan Africa. People all over the world are projecting grand narratives onto Israel. For some it is a hangover from the Cold War-era interpretation: the US-backed Israel versus the Soviet-backed Arabs. For others it is religious: Christian, Jewish and Muslim struggles for the Holy Land. Still others see it as the stand of natives versus invaders, civilisation versus savagery, Europe versus Asia and so on.
The interpretations are fought over – the consensus that conflict in Israel matters (and carnage in Congo doesn’t) is not.
Most people will not lose sleep over Africans killing other Africans because it isn’t easy to understand, there are no good guys. But Muslims killing Jews or Americans killing Communists – these are easy to apply simplistic templates to, and thus these are the conflicts that inspire outrage.
Nuking Japan was a big deal, the attacks were nightmarish atrocities on largely civilian targets. But they were not the only atrocities of the mid-20th century, and we should not let emotion and convenient political narratives twist our understanding of this historical fact.
Sunday, February 21, 2010
"Selective outrage", or "Why nuking Japan was no big deal"