Ukrainian refugees Montreal Canda

Our reactions to Ukraine’s suffering are very telling

“Humans don’t have an unlimited capacity for empathy. But it’s worth examining whether there are patterns that stand out, a propensity for always focusing on some victims and some crises, while ignoring others.”

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has dominated news coverage. The world is watching with dismay as ordinary Ukrainian citizens — going on about their lives only a few weeks ago — are now seeking shelter from Russian airstrikes in underground metro stations and preparing Molotov cocktails to launch against Russian tanks rolling in on once peaceful streets.

Collectively, we have responded with compassion and support for the people of Ukraine and its charismatic and determined president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and contempt for the thuggish Putin. Many countries have quickly opened their doors to Ukrainian refugees, which is exactly the reaction one would hope to see when people are running for their lives.

But many have also noticed the double standards in the selective empathy (and often, flat-out racism) displayed by some reporters and politicians. One CBS reporter, describing the Ukrainian crisis, explained that “this is not Iraq or Syria, this is a civilized and European country.” Ukraine’s very own Deputy Chief Prosecutor emphasized European white features when he said, “This is very emotional for me, because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed” as a way of explaining why he was affected more. “These people are intelligent, they are educated people,” Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov told reporters. “This is not the refugee wave we have been used to, people we were not sure about their identity, people with unclear pasts, who could have been even terrorists…” The chairman of the Foreign Affairs committee of the French National Assembly, Jean-Louis Bourlanges, speaking on TV, said: “This is going to be an immigration of great quality, intellectuals, one that we will be able to take advantage of.” Not only is it shameful to treat refugees as a resource to be exploited for one’s own benefit, but the statement itself is steeped with a racist, colonial mindset, one that seeks to hierarchize and place an assigned value on people’s worth.

Denial of double standards 

Some people balk at the insinuation. They refuse to acknowledge the double standards. It makes them uncomfortable. The same way some hate it when it’s pointed out that it’s hard to hear the (well-deserved) condemnations of Putin’s Russia by the U.S. — a country that has just as ruthlessly and indiscriminately bombed innocent civilians, invaded and occupied countries throughout its history and continues to supply much of the ammunition, aircraft and weapons used in some of these attacks today. Yes, Putin is gearing up to be remembered as a war criminal but ask the people of Iraq or Pakistan and they will tell you that U.S. president George W. Bush, who unilaterally invaded Iraq and caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, is one, too. Yet most of the west has already whitewashed his record. 

Canada may not have the U.S.’s questionable foreign policy history, but we’re not innocent. We may be sending Ukraine lethal military equipment to help it fight off Russian aggression, but our government also sells weapons to Saudi Arabia which many have long decried may be used in the war against Yemen, making Canada complicit in human rights violations. I’m no geopolitical expert, and I know there are many strategic decisions being taken daily by governments based on multiple factors most of us can’t even begin to fathom, but the cognitive dissonance required to navigate some of these contradictions and ethical quagmires can be hard to reconcile.

We empathize with what we know

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy

Of course, proximity plays a role in much of this. When you see places and people that remind you of home, you’re more likely to pay attention and empathize. It’s what Iranian author Azar Nafisi refers to as the “shock of recognition.” But the fact that so many of us were so quick to respond with outrage to bombs hitting Ukraine, while so many other countries are currently also being bombed — without international attention or condemnation — also means something, too.

It might be that some of these long-simmering ethnic tensions and conflicts are so complex, so difficult to grasp, that we stop trying. Perhaps for some it’s the numbness, the desensitization to Middle Eastern or African countries that have been at war for so long that it feels hopeless to be emotionally invested, while Europe has been relatively conflict-free for a little while. Although that too is a convenient lie, since those now feigning shock that Europeans are engaging in war must not have studied history at all or seem to have forgotten that some of the world’s worst atrocities have taken place on European soil.

For others it might be how thoroughly unprovoked the attack on Ukraine has been, or the fact that Ukraine resembles our western realities: a functioning and peaceful democracy and a freely elected president attacked by a tyrannical despot. It’s easy to take sides when things are so black and white. 

Who are the ‘deserving’ victims? 

But one can acknowledge the reasons that make international empathy for Ukraine easy, while also admitting the disparate international attention to conflict and death in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Ethiopia, Somalia and Afghanistan. International media does cover these war zones, but they’re certainly not using the same “heroic” epithets or descriptors for the fighters or their leaders. Think of how Palestinian or Kurdish struggles have often been downplayed or ignored. Only two years ago, thousands died in Armenia and Azerbaijan, and hundreds of thousands were displaced, but I don’t recall much international attention.

While uneven emotional responses can sometimes be explained by reasons shaped by personal experience, there’s no denying that for some people there exists a hierarchy of “deserving” victims — the idea deep down inside that some lives matter less, that some people are, as Nigerian writer Teju Cole puts it, “unmournable bodies.”

“There are, it seems winners and losers in the sweepstakes of compassion — those who get more of our collective compassion, those who get less, those who get none,” writes British-Nigerian writer Brigitte Sesu Tilley-Gyado.

Some people claim that human nature is such that if the war were to continue for years or decades in Ukraine, the international community would soon lose interest. Ukrainian suffering would fade into the background, as new, more urgent issues arose, other emergencies caught our eye, other closer-to-home crises required our attention and compassion. 

They’re not entirely wrong. Humans don’t have an unlimited capacity for empathy. If we did, I think we would self-combust, shatter into a million pieces, dissolve into a perpetual puddle of tears. At some point, self-preservation also requires that we pick and choose what captures our attention, what makes us grieve. But it’s worth examining whether there are patterns that stand out, a propensity for always focusing on “some” victims” and “some” crises, while ignoring others. 

Do we treat all refugees equally? 

Afghan refugees Conservatives Bloc
Refugees from Afghanistan

Because it goes beyond selective empathy and media attention. We see it in the disparate treatment of refugees. We already know there are refugees who “deserve” an outstretched hand, and those who don’t. While many European countries quickly opened their borders to tens of thousands of Ukrainians this past week, many former refugees from the Middle East were quick to point out that they had faced a far frostier reception. Sure, the western world has taken in thousands of Syrians and Afghans (and thousands of Vietnamese, Haitians, Rwandans and Cambodians in the past) but it’s also easy to remember the suspicion, the Islamophobia, the “what if terrorists are coming with them?” and “are they really refugees or just opportunists?” backlash that Canada’s Liberal government received when it made an (honourable) pledge to welcome Syrians. 

It’s fair to point out that while Poland quickly offered unconditional help to Ukrainians fleeing their country, Polish security forces were only recently beating back migrants from the Middle East and Afghanistan with batons as they tried to get across the border. The country’s pushback methods have been so violent they’ve been heavily criticized for actions considered illegal under EU law. Yet, as The New York Times noted, Ukrainian refugees were greeted with “smiles, hot drinks and transported to railway stations.” 

Along similar patterns, some African students studying in Ukraine and now trying to flee were turned away from many neighbouring countries or even from boarding the trains. Are they less at risk from falling bombs than white Ukrainians allowed to depart and welcomed freely? Or do we — once again — have an easier time seeing the humanity of some, but not of others? ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.