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Have we become insensitive to other people’s suffering?

An organization was running a Facebook campaign aiming at raising funds for a cause where hundreds and thousands of civilians had been killed and injured over the past years. Excellent “marketing” made millions by enabling clicking the posts used for the campaign displaying horrifying photos and videos of a civilian population in dire state – however few appeared motivated to make a donation which was the purpose of the campaign. People expressed sadness and anger, yet their actual motivation to help at large remained absent. In many cases, people do not get convinced to help – even after having seen the most dreadful images of human suffering. Is this due to apathy, a belief it will not help anyway, that the money will never reach the beneficiaries or have we simply become insensitive to other people’s suffering?  

Images of bleeding, screaming children and crying mothers flash over the TV-screen. ‘It is terrible’ you say before you start talking about something else. To physically take out the credit card and make a donation requires a bit more than merely expressing sympathy to a suffering population. Although we can afford it we still do not try to make an effort. Instead we might wonder what to wear tomorrow or what to have for dinner. We might even think ‘why bother, it won’t help anyway’. The other part of us tells us that it does not concern us.  

Across the world, humanitarian aid organizations appeal to people’s emotions to increase the amount of donations for various humanitarian crises. Whether or not they hit a nerve among the population they advocate, seems in part related to the extent to which people are identifying themselves with the suffering population. People are at large driven by emotions and emotions are often driven by something we perceive familiar. Visualized suffering no longer has the same precedence as it used to have. We see it every day on the news and social media sites. Sure we feel pity, but the majority does not move easily from pitying to action and as we all know -  pity helps no one. 

While some humanitarian crises have fostered enormous engagement among people, it takes more for people to engage into the long-term commitment it would take to alleviate suffering in a given humanitarian crisis. Emotional empathy has its clear limits, usually weighed against costs and benefits of engaging. The benefit of the greater good does not always go along with priorities in a capitalistic world and what is the greater good in any case. In the end, we might seem insensitive even if we are not, so perhaps we should think about it this way. If you lived in a war zone would you not appreciate that someone on the other side of the world made an effort to help you? 

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