Compassion fatigue
The dilemma of human rights awareness

A year ago last Thursday, at least 817 people – the vast majority of them unarmed – were “systematically and deliberately” killed by Egyptian security forces clearing the Rab'a al-Adawiya sit in. So says a recent report released by Human Rights Watch. The New York based organisation went on to say that the Raba'a massacre was at least as bad – if not worse than – the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

That was how I came across the news, on the Guardian's website: a comparison between two massacres 25 years and half a world apart. I don't regularly keep up with Egyptian affairs, but the reference to Tiananmen Square caught my eye, so I clicked through to the article and started to read. As I skimmed the first paragraph, which told me the basic facts of the massacre (numbers, dates, the main players) and repeated the comparison to Tiananmen Square, a strange thing happened. I felt the need to continue reading diminish.

After all, I already understood the most important details, didn't I? The government, as governments do, had cracked down on peaceful protests with lethal force. I knew this story: David vs Goliath, Democracy vs Oppression.

Or at least I thought I did. But at that point where I wanted to stop reading, the picture I had in my mind was of a lone man facing a column of tanks, a picture obviously invoked by the Tiananmen comparison. But it was the wrong picture. In fact, I realised, I knew very little about the protestors in Rab’a. Were they mostly students, as in Tiananmen? Was it democracy they were demanding, or something else?

These comparisons aren't uncommon – they play an important role in human rights rhetoric. We're always trying to pin new atrocities onto old ones. The Holocaust repeated, a new Apartheid, another Stolen Generation.  They operate as a kind of moral shorthand. They satisfy our need for narratives in the face of raw facts and numbers.

And most importantly, they suggest a world of moral simplicity. Each of these past events is now the object of what seems like universal moral condemnation. By comparing Rab'a to Tiananmen, or the Northern Territory Intervention to Apartheid, news outlets and human rights organisations hope to cut through “compassion fatigue” – that singularly modern condition whereby the overwhelming stream of information in our news feeds is more likely to provoke moral paralysis than action.

Put another way, “compassion fatigue” is the paradox of human rights knowledge. As Stanley Cohen and Bruna Seu, sociologist and psychologist respectively, have written, “most people clearly do not react as human rights organisations would like them to. The message… moves them – but not necessarily into doing what they should.” This is what campaigns to raise awareness misunderstand – more often than not, we know what we should know (that people are dying in any number of conflict zones, that the conditions in offshore detention centres are akin to torture), but that knowledge fails to provoke a commensurate reaction.

So we make comparisons to events with unassailable moral heft to cut right through the knowledge paradox. But hindsight obscures the contemporaneous debates and struggles that surrounded each of these past events. It presents human rights judgments and campaigns in a context of a universal consensus that has already been achieved. In turn, that process erases the specific and complex facts of the Rab'a massacre, or the conflict in Gaza. We come to expect moral simplicity. So when it emerges that a small number of those at Rab'a were armed, or that Hamas is still firing rockets, we draw back, paralysed, because we have forgotten that those who struggle against oppression do not always do so peacefully. We forget that we don't need to rank atrocities. Is this situation really as bad as the Holocaust? Are current policies really as racist as they were in the 30s? Most of all, we forget that the comparison is only a signpost, a way to orientate ourselves in a sea of information. We forget to keep reading.

André Dao

André Dao is the co-founder of Behind the Wire, an oral history organisation documenting people’s lived experience of human rights abuses.


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