What Is Important?

Last week there was tragedy in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. Our hearts go out to the families of the victims and the communities shaken by senseless acts of violence.

There are patterns we follow in our response to tragedy. I’m speaking now about the vast majority of people who are not directly involved, whose experience is vicarious, secondhand or derivative.

First, there is empathy. Many of us, and an optimist would say most, are sincerely moved by human suffering, and we reach out in thought and in prayer where our hands cannot reach. Some of us upgrade those efforts with something more tangible. We volunteer our time or donate to a cause.

But for an ever growing number of us engaged in the pixel matrix, there are patterns of behavior of questionable benefit to our peace of mind and, in the long term, to our freedom itself.

We have grown accustomed now to the entities which seek to monetize tragedy. News talkers, celebrities, bloggers, and “influencers” posture sympathy and outrage. A news talker tears up while reading a politically charged presentation and it becomes a headline. Politicians seek to bend events to political advantage. There are accusations and recriminations and more headlines.

Meanwhile on social media a similar process unfolds, though our efforts are geared more toward signalling our virtue. Look how upset I am. I changed my profile picture because I care so much. We tweet and post other tweets and posts of outrage, accusation and recrimination. Social media encourages our participation, and profits from it.

The process echoes throughout our various forms of communication until we are distracted by the next event or the next tragedy, or until we are told that it’s time to care about something else.

We assume so readily now that what is presented to us for our consumption is the most important thing there is, simply because it is presented to us. Let’s take a look at some of the “side items,” not considered important enough to be on the main menu:

As Neal de Grasse Tyson pointed out recently, in any given 48 hour period there are 500 deaths due to medical errors. Three hundred people die from the flu; 250 from suicide; 200 from car accidents and 40 from homicide by hand gun.

Between February and March this year, 280 Christians were killed in targeted attacks in Nigeria. Last year, 87,000 women were killed by domestic violence, which remains the number one killer of women around the world. This year 36 million people will starve to death.

We can’t change our profile pictures fast enough to keep up.

There is no fault to be found in empathy, or in any of the emotions we feel in response to a tragedy. However, it would benefit us to remember how much more easily we respond to emotion than to fact, and what a small percentage of fact there is in the information presented to us for our consumption. When we become habituated to a handful of companies and a roomful of politicians deciding for us what is important, we give up a power that we may find difficult to retrieve.

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