The Low-Stakes Compassion of College Students

Hamas has the most sophisticated defence system. It uses Palestinian civilians as shield. It wants many of them to die. David Brooks, in his column in the New York Times, wrote, “Hamas’s survival depends on support in the court of international opinion.” This was always the strategy of Hamas. If terrorists have powerful uses for our compassion, then the question arises whether it is dangerous to have the sort of compassion they want.

But then, we can argue that we are not always in control of our compassion. It may be used for tactical purposes by terrorists, but compassion is a natural resource of the world, like water, radio waves and the internet. And, it cannot be just turned on or off just because the wrong sort of people mine it.

As a natural resource, fast-forming global compassion for far-away issues is new; it is even new to human nature. The history of how the world has felt sorry for Palestine is brief. The point I began to witness this history was in the mid-80s, as an average Indian boy. Israel appeared to be a valiant small nation surrounded by dangerous foes. And a man called Yasser Arafat was somehow one of the most recognisable men in the world. But it was hard to figure out what exactly was “the Palestinian Conflict”. In the 80s, if you did not understand something, you had to read a whole book. Actually, even today that is the only way, despite options like “10 things you should know about Palestine” and so on. As a boy I had quickly figured out that asking adults was useless. They did not know much, actually they did not know much about anything. Outside the Levant, and its emotional system, very few knew much about the Palestine conflict.

Then, with the advent of the internet, everybody else skipped a step. It was not information that flowed, but a peculiar mix of information and the emotion of its source.  Since then, the region has been erupting every now and then, usually because an Israeli attack has killed civilians. And the world has erupted in rage against Israel. It is every generation’s introduction to proxy outrage. People who argued that the problem was Hamas, that Hamas hid behind and beneath civilians, were dismissed as morally immature compared to those who felt the pain of Palestinians. I remember in 2014, when Israeli bombardment in Gaza killed several children, there was massive global anger against Israel. Palestinians were always good with their propaganda, as it was a part of their defence mechanism. Israel too had its propaganda but Israel is innately terrible at PR because it is a civilization that is innately geared for strength and survival through supremacy, and its heart is never really in the display of vulnerability. In the days that followed the death of the children, Palestinians amplified images of Israelis, on comfortable sofas, watching Gaza being bombed from vantage points. In many parts of the world, the Beautiful People shared images with comments like “disgusting”, probably sitting on comfortable sofas themselves.

People who live far away from a conflict zone develop simple views of ‘victims’ and ‘villains’. In 2014, if you tried to point this out, or the fact that Hamas hid among the civilians not just in defence but also to get civilians killed, you were quickly disgraced as heartless.

The central quality of compassion for far-away people is that it is modern. It did not happen in other times. Imagine a time in ancient India, in Magadha perhaps. A group of young people are having boiled asparagus and mild tea, when a messenger walks in to announce that in Kosala there has been a massacre of civilians in a market. The young Magadhans are outraged. “Sick,” someone says. And they engrave slogans on bronze plate, and march holding them in protest against the massacre. I don’t think this ever happened. I cannot substantiate it, but I suspect that in antiquity there was no long-distance compassion for people who did not belong to one’s race, region or caste. Actually, even today, most of the outrage on display is in the West, which is not a physical region but a mental space. For instance, most Indians and Africans are not so moved about anything outside what directly concerns them. They are professional humans; people who have preserved something of the antiquity in them are somehow never amateurs of life.

Just because a human feeling did not come from antiquity, and that it is sophisticated, it does not mean it is not human nature. Modernity might be the name of a time, but it is also the character of a time. And the character of our age is that the refined elite among us feel strongly for people far away, especially when the cost of feeling sorry is low. Hamas always knew that. The world would have been a wonderful place if people felt this level of compassion for those much closer to them. But the way of the world is that people feel more compassion for Palestinians than for their spouses.

I know someone who has very strong views about Islam in India, but about five years ago when he visited Palestine he was enraged by Israel, by “what they are doing to the poor Palestinians.” A “hardliner” at home acquires the heart of Arundhati Roy abroad.

The world is never tiring of showing, but most people don’t see, that  there is no such thing as a global right-wing. People are ‘logical’ about the oppression of minorities at home, but compassionate about what is going on far away. Hamas is a beneficiary of this too.

So what? What are people expected to do when they read that people have been blasted away because Israel was hunting some terrorists underneath? How can we not feel the pain of those people, especially when their politics don’t matter to us? So this is ultimately another way of asking how must we be? How should we be?

The answer is in the people who have not easily shown their feelings for Palestinians. Not counting Jews, Muslims and others who have a high stake in the conflict, I feel there are broadly three kinds of people who are not easily outraged by Israel. One, people who dislike or fear Islam. Two, people who instinctively side with the strong. The third group should interest us. They are people who are helplessly objective, who demonstrate that being objective is a personality type. It is not that they do not feel; they just do not show what they feel easily. That seems odd in this age of showing. Wary of global emotions, they know every conflict has two sides, and only one side makes for great photojournalism. They know their emotions are valuable, and never give it away cheap. I think this is a good way to be. 

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