Alexander Chancellor

The fox that killed my chickens depressed me more than 250,000 tsunami deaths

Perhaps I am uniquely unimaginative and lacking in empathy, but I fear not

It is hard to know how a tragedy is going to move a person who is not directly affected by it. Over a death or misfortune in the family, or among one’s friends, one is sure to feel pain and grief. But what of those other ghastly events involving people, maybe hundreds or thousands of them, with whom one has no connection? They provoke shock, disgust and horror, but not necessarily great personal sadness. Could it be true that I was more depressed when a fox killed all my chickens than I was when the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 swept over a quarter of a million people to their deaths? I have an ugly, shameful feeling that I might have been.

Perhaps I am uniquely unimaginative and lacking in empathy, but I fear not. It is a harsh fact of life that most people do not truly feel the sufferings or losses of people in situations in which they cannot imagine themselves. Worse than that, they tend to be mainly thankful that such situations did not or could not involve them. Take Ebola in Africa or the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan as examples of this. But the closer a tragedy is to home, and the more we can identify with the victims, the greater the emotional response is likely to be.

The greater sorrow felt here over the beheadings of western hostages by Islamic State fanatics than over the deaths of many thousands of victims of the fighting in Syria was due not only to the hideous, gloating barbarity of the beheadings themselves but also to the fact that we could just about imagine ourselves in the hostages’ shoes. We could even imagine that we might have been in the Twin Towers in New York when they were struck by those planes on 9/11, resulting in those awful television pictures of people leaping from a vast height to certain death on the street below.

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