In light of the recent Paris attacks, many have gestured towards what they see as a double standard. Why is it that the Paris attacks have gotten so much coverage, in comparison to, say, the bombing in Beirut or the attack on Garissa University College in Kenya earlier this year? Perhaps this difference in attention reveals that we in the West do not care about what happens in the Middle East or in third-world countries.
The idea has the potential to resonate widely. The natural inference to make is that this difference in attention is a symptom of an objectionable and trenchant Western elitism. Why else would we turn a relative blind eye to lives lost in Beirut or Kenya? Indeed, the phenomenon can’t be explained merely by the fact that these places are far away geographically. Beirut is not much farther away from, say, New York than Paris is. And Australia is even farther away than Beirut or Kenya — yet surely, we would pay significant attention if Sydney suffered such terrible attacks.
Perhaps we pay more attention to Paris because of France’s cultural proximity to America or the rest of Europe. But this seems morally irrelevant — if human lives all matter equally, then it should be irrelevant whether or not a gruesome attack occurs in Lebanon, Kenya, or Paris. We should therefore pay equal attention to all three.
But consider this. Race-based slavery still exists in Mauritania, with around 4% of the population being enslaved. Homosexuality carries the death penalty in dozens of countries — Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Yemen to name a few. In scores of others, homosexual acts are punishable by long prison sentences (including life in prison). Many nations — particularly in the Middle East and North Africa — do not allow women to drive, freely interact with men, or go anywhere without a chaperone. In several of these countries, adultery is punishable by death, and sexually assaulted women need to produce four male witnesses or else face criminal charges from state courts.
Yet consider how much more attention is paid to far less stringent rights when it comes to the US and Europe. We paid much more attention to the US Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage or Ireland’s same-sex marriage referendum than to the ongoing plight of homosexuals around the world. Kim Davis was the center of attention for several weeks on social media for denying marriage licenses when she was legally obligated to — but hardly anybody talked about Syrian homosexuals who were “punished” by being thrown to their deaths off multi-storied buildings. We talk about offensive Halloween costumes but not about de facto slavery of South Asians in Qatar. We discuss methods to implement equal pay for equal work but turn a blind eye to the fact that in many countries, women are forced to marry their husbands and have no way to leave them if they are abusive.
Now, I’m not saying that the various West-centric issues brought up here do not deserve our concern — they do. But what I want to point out is that if we take the line of argument mentioned earlier seriously — namely that we should not pay differential attention to problems outside of the US and Europe — then it seems we should be paying much, much more attention to the issues mentioned above than we currently do.
My least cynical guess is that complaining about Paris’s getting a disproportionate amount of attention is largely a coping mechanism for downplaying the extent to which the pervasiveness of certain ideologies threatens our way of life today. But nonetheless, consistency demands us to think that either 1) the relatively lower amount of coverage devoted to Kenya and Beirut is not problematic; or 2) we ought to radically reassess our comparative lack of attention to much more pressing issues of discrimination and gender inequality outside of the US and Europe. We just cannot have it both ways.