We only care when Westerners die


The more I write these things, the more I realise that I’ve only got about four basic articles in me. I just put out variations on the same core arguments again and again – consumer capitalism is destroying the environment, left-wingers have abandoned the global poor, the political establishment is impervious to radical change, and so on. This one is always the most controversial.

The Manchester Arena attack was sickening. Violence against civilians is always wrong. Hurt the innocent, and you’ve immediately lost the argument. Whatever your cause, you’ve irrevocably damaged it.

Killing children is on another level. It’s hard, if not impossible, to try and put the gravity of it into words, so I won’t try.

After Manchester, 22 people are dead, many of them teenagers. The youngest was eight. Hundreds of people will be dealing with the psychological scars for the rest of their lives – the friends and family of the dead, the injured, bystanders, first responders, and many others.

But around in the world, millions of people are in the same position, if not a much worse one.

In a single day on earth, it’s estimated that 21,000 people starve, most of them children. Tens of thousands die of diseases that can be easily treated – pneumonia, diarrhoea, malaria and others. Every day, someone watches a friend or relative get blown to bits by a missile or a mine – and spread over a year, the death toll is in the tens of millions.

When a bomb goes off in Manchester, the world stops. Sympathy and solidarity pours in from around the globe. Resolves steeled, governments vow to take action.

When even worse things happen elsewhere, we don’t even notice, let alone care. Like a taxi driver who won’t go south of the river, our empathy stops at an arbitrary barrier. Human beings in Africa, Asia or South America are no different to human beings in Manchester – but our attitudes and actions show that, somehow, we think they are.

It seems that we can relate to and humanise people much more easily when they’re part of the same culture. When people we know or feel some sort of connection to are taken away from us, it hurts. When that connection isn’t there, we feel nothing. But it’s our responsibility to overcome that primitive way of thinking.

As things stand, we clearly feel no attachment to billions of human beings fundamentally no different from ourselves – which, when you think about it, is a colossal, mind-bending indictment on us and the way we live our lives.

That said, I’m not in a very good position to lecture anyone else about this sort of thing. I’m still upset Roger Moore died – an 89-year old multimillionaire who made films about a smarmy, chauvinistic Tory jaunting around the world killing people (that I happened to love as a kid before thankfully coming to my senses in my late teens).

To feel sad at the death of a nearly ninety year-old the same week 22 people, 10 of them children, got blown up, is fairly grotesque. But it at least demonstrates how the human brain works – and shows us what we need to do fulfil our obligations to the section of humanity suffering for reasons the bloated West could easily sort.

Ridiculously, I felt a connection to Roger Moore. Completely understandably, we all feel a connection to the people killed in Manchester.

To finally tackle and end the everyday abominations of extreme poverty and starvation and death by treatable disease, then, it’s clear we need to develop a meaningful connection with the human beings who happen not to share our passport.

That means educating Westerners about global poverty and inequality, spreading awareness of the scale of the suffering endured by millions and millions of people, and doing any and everything we can to humanise the citizens of the global south in the eyes of people closer to home.

None of which is to suggest that if we just achieve a sort of hippy world consciousness all problems on the planet will magically cease.

What we really need to do is abolish capitalism – then use the resources hoarded by the 1% to level vast, dizzying inequalities between global north and global south, and rebuild southern societies to a point where they can provide stability and comfort to the people that live in them.

But that’s quite a big ask. And without getting people here to care about those suffering elsewhere, it’s a project that’s never going to get off the ground.