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Compassion fatigue? Depends who's asking

By Joseph Wakim - posted Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Was the global sympathy for the 129 innocent victims of the Paris terrorism 'racist' because it was not extended to the 43 equally innocent victims of the Beirut terrorism a day prior?

Many of my compatriots from Lebanon took to social media, incensed by what they perceived as selective sympathy and blatant racism. It reinforced their perception that Middle Easterners are treated as less innocent and their lives less precious. Some even posited that there was a hierarchy of humans based on skin colour.

When it comes to Middle Eastern victims, we don't see full page spreads on their faces, names, families and dreams because we are so conditioned to seeing them dehumanised as dispensable war fodder. We are so conditioned to seeing 'them' as oozing hatred, not oozing love.


We have seen the French flag adopted in solidarity as the updated Facebook profile. We have seen the French national anthem sung in solidarity at the Webley Stadium. We have seen 'Pray for Paris' slogans and floral tributes to the victims worldwide.

But is it the race of the victim or the region of the crime that incites our compassion? Here is the litmus test for our compassion meter.

Let's say a Parisian victim was of Arab descent, which is very likely given the multicultural demography of Paris. Would our compassion valve be narrowed because this victim was not really one of us westerners, and presumed to be an (illegal) immigrant?

Conversely, let's say a Beirut victim was a western immigrant, which is very likely around the American University of Beirut. After all, Beirut was embraced as the 'Paris of the Middle East' since World War Two, as the tourist destination that boasts the best of Eastern antiquity and Western modernity with a French flavour. Would our compassion valve be widened with 'you poor thing, trapped among them' or with 'what did you expect living in a hot spot like that?'

While no empirical evidence exists to answer these questions, my hunch is that the region trumps the race when it comes to our compassion meter. The region determines the instant response of the compassion valve, then the race of the victim either narrows or widens that response.

Paris is a familiar holiday destination and safe haven where many of us have walked those exact streets and drank at those exact cafes. There is an understandable emotional connection that has nothing to do with racism and everything to do with region.


When I was trapped in Lebanon during the 2006 war while visiting relatives, the compassion valve in Australia widened when we realised that Aussies were at risk, then narrowed when the Aussies were deemed to be of Lebanese origin.

Some research suggests a 'racial empathy gap' where white people assume that black people feel less pain. Other research defines compassion as 'suffering together with' the victim coupled with a genuine desire to relieve it.

Consider the mass shootings that tragically take place in the USA. The region and race are both western, but the shock-horror effect is lower because of the regularity of these crimes in these places. When bombings, shootings or terrorism attacks are repeated frequently in the same region, our reaction morphs from treating them as tragic to accommodating them as the new normal. Over time, we become numb and unwilling to muster compassion from our exhausted wellspring.

Even before we see the faces of the families and victims, we may roll our eyes think 'how typical' and narrow our compassion valve. And 'typical' leads to the pathway of 'stereotypical'.

The missing link in understanding compassion is not about the victim's region or race, but about the heart of the compassionate. If our definition of self is color-blind, our heart can be replenished and compassion fatigue will no longer be selective.

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About the Author

Joseph Wakim founded the Australian Arabic Council and is a former multicultural affairs commissioner.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Joseph Wakim

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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