Saturday, February 18, 2012

Death, grief and guilt

It happened when Steve Jobs died, and again, more recently, when Whitney Houston’s death was announced. People mourned for a stranger. In both cases, within 24 hours, the same meme started circulating. Its phrasing varied slightly, but its message was always the same. You probably saw it or heard about it (that’s the nature of a meme, after all). The latest one I saw had a picture of the dead famous person with the caption “One person dies and 100 million cry.” Next to it was a picture of starving, emaciated African children with beseeching arms. Their caption was “One million people die, and no one cares.”
The starving children in Africa have been used as a cudgel for purposes both great and petty since as long as I can remember. Ethiopia was the usual country trotted out when I didn’t finish my supper. (Thanks very much, Mom, for the gastronomic nightmare called “burger bean cups.” It was a cruel and cunning dish. The thing looked like a hamburger, but the ground beef patty was actually stuffed with green beans. I hated green beans. The first time she shelled it out I was completely trusting, so I took an enormous bite and ended up with a huge mouthful of beef and beans. Evil. She was a good cook, but burger bean cups were dirty pool. Maybe that’s why I like fast food burgers—no way to hide a bean in those thin patties.) “There are starving children in Ethiopia and you’re wasting food. Tsk, tsk.”
(Even as a child I knew the argument was flawed. How did my shoveling 4000 calories into my maw help anyone on a different continent?)
Africa’s plight is complex and sad and particularly horrible because it’s been going on for so long. The specific country we’re familiar with over here may have morphed over time from Ethiopia to Somalia, but starving children are no less tragic. When they’re being used to prove a point it’s hard to argue without feeling like a heartless jerk. In my opinion, it’s a low move, to use those poor kids just to win an argument.
The “don’t care about the famous, care about the starving children” argument is flawed anyway. It assumes that all human life has an equal value. That’s simply not true, and everyone knows it. They just don’t like to admit it. People enjoy embracing the false notion that you can’t put a price on a human life. If you can’t put a price on it, it has an infinite value, and therefore everyone’s the same.
Really? Will you weep as hard for a homeless man’s death as you will for your father? Or mother? Or your own child? The homeless guy’s probably pretty innocent, and certainly doesn’t deserve to die, but most of us don’t live in constant grief because random strangers are dying every minute. We can’t. It would cripple us. Could you imagine feeling the “attending my own child’s funeral” level of sorrow for every single human that dies? No one would be able to function.
We have to be able to be a little callous towards other human life. I’m not saying many of us don’t take that lack of empathy too far, but it’s unrealistic to pretend all human life is equal. The value of a human life is high, yes, but it’s also 100% subjective. Your sister means the world to you, but to most of the seven billion Earthlings, she’s not even a name. They won’t even know when she’s gone, much less mourn her.
So to claim a person we believe has touched our lives doesn’t deserve our grief is unfair. Yes, children that starve are tragic. They shouldn’t be starving at all. It’s in our power to save most of them, if not all. Or is that the point the people disseminating that meme are trying to make? Our emotions should be tied to the tragedy of the death, the level of innocence the victim possesses, rather than their accomplishments, fame, or impact on the world at large. When a starving child dies, that death is by definition more terrible than someone famous or rich or powerful?
Because if that’s their point, they’re putting a value on human life, too. See? Subjective. The meme should say “One person dies, and everyone who cares about them cries.” The caption would work for both sides of the poster and we wouldn’t have to be made to feel guilty because we perceive Steve Jobs or Whitney Houston to have touched us more deeply than unknown children a half world away.

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