Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Happy birthday world

I wrote a blog post on Friday 11th March. It was my birthday, but it was also the day the tsunami struck Japan, and within a few hours, anything I had to say seemed irrelevant to the point of being offensive.

Before the news started arriving in this part of the world, I was prancing around my bedroom, reacquainting myself with the more esoteric elements of my wardrobe. While dressed in a blue chiffon dress from a Parisian vintage shop, sipping gin, the subject of dress and how clothes make us think seemed like a great topic for a post. The contrast between that lighheartedness and the monumental changes taking place in Japan concurrently has become greater and greater as the days have passed, until I felt guilty in retrospect for my celebratory state of mind.

As a philosopher it’s easy come back at this. At any one moment, we might argue, things more terrible than we can imagine are happening to people somewhere in the world. How many birthday cakes were being cut and savoured as 9/11 unfolded? How many people experienced the most happy, satisfying year of their life at times when hundreds of thousands suffered and died through war and famine?

I’ve been one of them, the generation who became immune to Oxfam campaign photographs and Band Aid appeals. So now, when I find myself engaging mentally and emotionally with events in a farflung place, affecting people I know no better than those alive 200 years ago, I doubt my own integrity.

This is philosophically more complex. If I am moved to think in depth about the struggles in Libya, trying to empathising with people there and considering both the personal and political effects of day to day horrors, this is surely better than dismissing it as just another page of the newspaper. I could argue that I’m finally mature enough (read devoid enough of self-obsession) to be genuinely concerned, finally able to engage with affairs of this scale and import. If I feel a sense of responsibility to follow and understand events in Libya, it is because that is the appropriate response that I have so far failed to have to equivalent world changes.

However, there is nothing special about now, for me as an individual. I do not expose myself to more news sources than before; I have not visited more places that have since become the subject of our bulletins; at 32 I have not reached a magic turning point of universal empathy and concern. Why on earth should I feel such a deep tug when I listen to reports from Libya that I have to turn off my portable radio, lest I weep in the street?

A friend proffered an explanation that again, I suspected of being too generous. It’s because this is true revolution, he said, it is people like us fighting for what they have wanted for so long. This thought does move me, I admit. To feel that something is so worthwhile that one should risk one’s life for it is a profound state that I don’t think I have ever experienced. But given that, how can I genuinely empathise? Would I feel just as moved if I were to read a piece of fiction that gave a superlative description of equivalent happenings?

I doubt I’ll ever be able to answer these questions, so for now I will have to live with my unjustified sense of engagement with distant people in the world, and wonder what will unfold next 11th March.


  1. Happy Belated Birthday, Zoe! There are many questions for which most of us have no answers. Honour and observe your feelings and see what emerges. You may be surprised.

  2. I think we become more empathetic and sympathetic as we get older. I'm not sure my generation was much more aware and concerned.

    John Rawls makes a distinction between states / regiemes that are liberal (broadly democratic) and decent (not necessarily democratic but observing human rights and freedoms states) and pariah (where rights and freedoms are suppressed, usually by a corrupt elite). Libya would be the later would I guess - and perhaps intuitively this is why we care.

    And for a brilliant if harrowing assessment of human capacity for wrong, read Humanity by Jonathan Glover - a history of 20th century political atrocities. It is perhaps the best book of applied philosophy I ever read.