In my previous post I mention that Londoners have “had to put up with a lot these past couple of weeks.” That they have, but few would challenge that fact that what London has been through recently pales in comparison to the multitude of crises happening elsewhere in the world — not least the terrifying conditions the ordinary people in Iraq (and most of the Coalition troops, for that matter) have had to live with for the last two years.
But attacks in Iraq don’t cause the rolling-news channels to interrupt their schedules for blanket reports. They don’t cause huge spikes in web traffic as internet users scramble to get the latest information. They don’t elicit that ‘we shall overcome’ solidarity, the ‘we’re all [insert victims here] now’ sentiments and well-wishes. They just happen. We read about them in the paper, or see a bulletin on the news; we sigh for a moment; and then we turn the page or change the channel.
In Chapter 16 of The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker refers to the idea of the Tragic Vision, in which “humans are inherently limited in knowledge, wisdom and virtue, and all social arrangements must acknowledge those limits.” It’s a very Hobbesian world-view but, judging by the way of the West today, it’s an accurate one.
Pinker goes on to explain that “[i]n the Tragic Vision, our moral sentiments, no matter how beneficent, overlie a deeper bedrock of selfishness. That selfishness is not the cruelty or aggression of the psychopath, but a concern for our well-being that is so much a part of our makeup that we seldom reflect on it and would waste our time lamenting it or trying to erase it.”
To illustrate this Tragic Vision, Pinker takes a quote from The Theory of Moral Sentiments, published in 1759 by the renowned economist and philosopher Adam Smith:
> Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would react upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would, too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquility as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which would befall himself could occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep to-night; but provided he never saw them, he would snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred million of his brethren.
It doesn’t speak wonders for Western society, does it? But unfortunate as this is, it does accurately describe our general attitude (of our governments, of ourselves) towards events the world over, from the tit-for-tat mutual destruction and terrorism in Israel and Palestine, to the recent massacres on northern Kenya, and the drought crisis in Niger that Markham is keeping track of, not to mention the issues of famine and poverty throughout Africa that Live8 was intended to highlight — and to make an even closer parallel, the repeated suicide bombings and attacks by Coalition forces in Iraq, which have killed thousands more people and terrorised Iraqis for far longer than Londoners have ever had to put up with, and yet have attracted far less blanket coverage in the media (the blogosphere included) than the London bombings have in the space of a fortnight.
I readily admit I should be implicated in that number for everything that I’ve written about the London attacks in the last two weeks. And the reason, as guilty as it makes me feel, is simply proximity. London is on my doorstep, and what happens there has a visceral impact on me, regardless of my relative safe distance from the city. Iraq, though, is some place far away; out of sight, and out of mind. If I was nearer to Iraq I’d feel much different, I’m certain. But I’m not. I’m in Ireland. And I sleep well at night.
That’s the Tragic Vision for you.