Contours of Concern
I saw one of my close friends, wondering why none of the non medicos haven’t posted anything against the pathetic treatment meted out to the mortal remains of the Chennai doctor who died of COVID19. My experience was different, but still it was a pertinent question.
The empathy — concern — action disconnect is a common issue. While our empathy isn’t infinite, it is the broadest of the three. The contours of our concern, however, are heavily influenced by our identity. This can be anything from nationality,religion, region, language or caste. Doctors are an unusual group — whose identity is irrevocably tethered to our profession. Perhaps that little thing called passion has a role to play, but I digress.
While we feel for any unfortunate soul, the mental bandwidth we allocate to those unfortunate depends to some extent on how much we can identify with the victims.
Do we feel bad for the sub Saharan Africans in abject poverty? Yes. Do we really spend a lot of time dwelling on that ? No. Do we feel bad for the human rights crisis in the countries like Syria? Yes. Do we really do anything serious about it? No ( posting memes doesn’t count).
This is why, the common man knows more about ISIS than Boko Haram. The latter kills poor Africans. The former is a sort of celebrity among terror groups, because it kills rich white people. The media plays a big role in our biases, playing an endless guessing game of what the audience might want to see. This is how empathy turns into concern.
When does the concern turn into action? When it is persistent and when we feel what has happened to the unfortunate can potentially happen to us. Deep down we know we aren’t Syria or Palestine. Deep down we know we wont be gunned by ISIS or Boko Haram. However, when it comes to violent crimes like Nirbhaya, it captures our imagination and propels us to demand justice. Not just because of the brutality of the act, but also because we feel that the only thing that separates the victim from us is dumb luck. The victims are relatable. Everyday folks like us.
So taking action on your empathy, clamouring for justice means we should feel it can happen to us. This is why, the public psyche is partially immune to tragedies faced by doctors. Especially if the tragedy happens because we are doctors. The public has no skin in the game, at best or have a beef against doctors, at worst. No wonder, they aren’t spurred to action.
For most people, their moral outrage is governed by victims relatability. The contours of their concern are defined by shared identity traits. This mental distance, between concern and action, between what we perceive as sad to what we perceive as potential danger, helps us maintain sanity at times. But it comes at a terrible cost — inaction in the face of injustice to those who don t live or look like us.
Because the problem is so deep rooted, it’s unlikely to change, anytime soon.