David Segal: Circles of concern
September 30, 2017
My son, a kindergartner in Houston, likes to FaceTime with his best friend back in Colorado. We try to make it happen with some regularity so the boys can maintain their long-distance connection. We hear updates on life from afar: What's kindergarten like in Aspen? (Pretty similar but with more mountains.) How's the weather there? (Already freezing while ours bottoms out at 80 degrees.)
Relationships draw the concentric circles of our concern. We care most about our family and those closest to us, then outward from there our friends and community, and then our nation and, globally, those in whom we can see ourselves in some way. One hopes that all of humanity figures into the equation, too. But tribe, faith, class — these color our moral imagination, deepening it for those "like us" and washing it out for those who are different and, therefore, distant.
During Hurricane Harvey, friends from around the country reached out to see how my family was faring. The media covered the storm nonstop, and it felt like most Americans saw themselves in Harvey's victims. They opened their hearts and hands — and their wallets — to help. Once Harvey passed on and Irma emerged, attention shifted to Florida. Moved by the plight of those in Irma's path, givers focused their aid on the Sunshine State.
That was to be expected, except that the crisis continued in Houston, even after the national cameras left. The recovery will be hard and slow, at times complex and grueling, and that's not great for ratings. The need for help remains, even after the hype is over.
And then there was Hurricane Maria, decimating Puerto Rico. Did we have any attention span left? My Facebook feed was not crowded with Puerto Rico relief efforts like it was for Houston and Florida, and news outlets were less obsessed with wall-to-wall coverage. Even the White House seemed peeved to have to deal with that island, full of American citizens now getting second-class treatment.
As I point fingers, I aim one at myself. I admit the damage on Puerto Rico did not move me like the damage in Houston, despite being worse by most objective measures. My reaction comes not from a quantitative assessment but a qualitative reality. Houston is home. I know people here whose houses flooded. Harvey looms larger in my moral universe. We humans are relational creatures, and our moral priorities are subjective. Their roots grow deep within our social networks. We may like to pretend otherwise, even aspire otherwise, but we should be honest about how we are wired to care.
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And that's to say nothing of the catastrophic flooding in India, Bangladesh and Nepal. Authorities estimate at least 1,200 killed, with more than 40 million people displaced and over $200 billion of damage. Those numbers dwarf anything we've seen in Houston, Florida or Puerto Rico. And yet, for many Americans, myself included, those South Asian disasters are a world away.
After the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, many Europeans and Americans opted to overlay a French flag on their Facebook profile picture. This show of solidarity was not matched after similar attacks that year in Lebanon and Nigeria. (Facebook did not even offer the flag option for those countries; in 2017 the social media giant discontinued the practice of promoting the flag overlay altogether, instead offering users tools to do it themselves if they choose.)
We all harbor moral blind spots for the people outside our circles of concern. As David Graham wrote in the Atlantic after the 2015 Paris attack, "There is a troubling tribal, or racial, component to familiarity: People tend to perk up when they see themselves in the victims." I think it has to do with feelings of "sameness," our instinct to see ourselves in some more than others. Many religious traditions try to teach us to expand our sphere of moral concern. If all humans are created in God's image, all are equally worthy of concern. But religious ties also can deepen our concern for our own group at the expense of others. If we are the faithful, what do we owe to the infidels, the heretics, the others?
On a practical level, global concern for 7 billion creatures can cause a kind of paralysis. Problems are so vast and widespread that we convince ourselves our efforts don't matter. In addition, to act in aid of one person usually means not acting for someone else. Our resources are finite, and I'm becoming convinced that our empathy is, too.
These questions are gathering momentum for me as a parent, responsible for my children's moral development. I want to teach them concern for others, of course; that starts, I think, with care for a younger sibling and respect for parents. Zooming out from that inner circle of concern gets more complicated. I'm aware that modeling is the most important way to teach. At a Sunday school parent learning session last week, a fellow father shared a reason for his family's commitment to the congregation: "I want my daughters to learn to be good people, and that means being a part of a community so they learn to care about something bigger than themselves."
That's as good a starting point as I can muster. Beyond bringing children into community to broaden their moral horizons, I'm convinced that our kids should see adults wrestle honestly with questions of self and other, family and community, personal and global. They should know we struggle with our moral blind spots and practical limitations.
A wise rabbi said almost two thousand years ago, "It's not all on you to complete the work, but you are not free to desist from it altogether."
Inability to do everything is never an excuse to do nothing. The good news is that doing something can start as soon as right now.
David Segal lives in Houston, Texas. Connect with him at http://www.rabbidavidsegal.com and on Facebook. His column runs the first Sunday of the month.
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