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Western Apathy Towards Human Suffering Outside Our Bubble

Haunted by the Taliban’s shadow, the women of Afghanistan live in trepidation, every single day of their lives. Survival begins to look more and more precarious as every new sunrise brings new tribulations, each one needing to be overcome for one more chance at hope. They live in fear of being killed every single day of their lives because of their gender. This is their harrowing reality. Worst of all, it’s become their normality.

When the United States and their allies announced their troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, one thing was for certain: the Taliban were going to take full control of the country. In May of that year, at the beginning of the withdrawal, a record number of women and children were murdered or injured. During the United States’ evacuation of what ended up being almost 125,000 people, a tragic video showed desperate Afghans attempting to cling to a US military plane before falling to their deaths.

All of this was widely reported at the time, and various news stories were released in the immediate aftermath of the withdrawal about the plight of the Afghan people, particularly women. However, coverage in the mainstream media of the Taliban’s heinous acts appeared to die down fairly quickly and now it seems like the world has more or less forgotten.  

This isn’t exactly a new occurrence. The same happened with Syria. The last major news story regarding the civil war there was probably when Trump ordered the withdrawal of US troops from Northern Syria back in 2019. 

The thing is, most of us in the West could not even begin to fathom what it is like to live in such a state of perpetual despondency. And, more worryingly, neither do a lot of us seem to care. This cold-hearted approach towards the hardship of people from a foreign culture is to be expected from the far-right, who have, among them, normalised conspicuous racism. However, the issue we are facing here isn’t so simple that we can blame it purely on extremist ideologies. It is something that goes beyond political views, something that is seeded deep inside of us.


I first noticed it a couple of years ago, just after the Paris attacks of November 2015. My mum posted an article on Facebook informing us of a typically callous ISIS suicide bombing in Iraq killing 26 civilians. She captioned the post with something along the lines of ‘Everyone is talking about what happened in Paris but no one mentions a thing when a similar event occurs in the Middle East’. 


Usually the comments on these kinds of links are sparse, which made the one reply that was on there all the more noticeable, written by a largely liberal woman my family knows quite well. She more or less declared that ‘Yeah, but Paris is closer to us so we can relate to them more’. My mum’s jaw fell like a maimed soldier, as did mine when she told me. Why should proximity matter when we’re all the same species? 


What is it that brings us to only empathise with the sufferings of those close by? Well, society and politics certainly play a big part in it, along with our seemingly natural instinct to create divisions based on factors like race, gender and culture. A 2011 study investigated how people responded to others' suffering based on whether they were part of their ‘group’ or not. The results discouragingly found that people lacked empathy towards ‘outgroup’ members compared to ‘ingroup’ members. Therefore, when politicians frame an argument of ‘us and them’, many of us instinctively go along with it. And the influence of the forever partisan mainstream media aids this political rhetoric. They, too, hold an uncanny grasp on the way many of us think, subtly influencing our ideologies and opinions. 


Perhaps this apathy is also a question of us wanting to merely live a straightforward, uncomplicated life, not having to worry about other people's pain too much. Let's face it, once we start focusing on the wider world there is a considerable amount of agony being inflicted on our fellow man. A lot of us are scared to swallow that particular pill; scared that it's going to eat away at us once it's inside. Sometimes it's hard to care. It means opening up our hearts to other people and, in doing so, taking on a responsibility – now we have to empathise with their feelings as well as feel our own. Many of us seem to be fearful of doing this on a grand scale.


But, ultimately, isn't our inimitable capacity for expressing compassion the one true trait that makes us human? When our hearts and our minds simultaneously align to create this emotion, it is a type of pure alchemy that no other species is capable of achieving. Shouldn't we all embrace that ability, in the knowledge that we are then fulfilling the uniqueness of our humanity? As well as knowing that we would be making the world a better, more united place, I might add.


It would be a shock-wave felt 6,000 miles away by the Afghan women who, as the Taliban hunts them down and forces away their rights, might just feel an emotional smile begin to creep across their faces as they realise that the world finally understands and acknowledges their torment. They are not alone in the dark anymore.

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