Front Page Choices and the American Ostrich Syndrome

Top and center this morning on the New York Times website is a video of how Prince Harry proposed to American actress Meghan Markle (in the print version the photo and article took up two-thirds of the front page below the fold). USA Today is running a story entitled, “Where Are All the Pop Stars?” as their top article, with the royal couple following. CNN is a little better, with Trump at the top, along with new sexual assault scandals; the newly engaged couple doesn’t appear until mid-page. Even the BBC has the royal couple as a top story, appearing multiple times on their home page.

We have to actually search out international news to see anything about Pope Francis’s trip to Myanmar, including his omission of the term “Rohingya.” (I wonder how many Americans even know there is an ethnic cleansing happening in Myanmar, or what a Rohingya Muslim is.) Do Americans know what’s happening in Syria today? How about the overlapping conflicts across the Greater Sahel and Lake Chad Basin that have contributed to massive human suffering, including the uprooting of some 4.2 million people from their homes? And, of course, the Congo is still suffering. As is South Sudan. As is Puerto Rico.

From Syria to South Sudan, more than 125 million people have had their lives devastated by conflict or disaster—countless families are being pushed deeper into poverty every day. Genocides, mass rapes, whole generations being exiled from their homes, many on the basis of religious or racial difference, continue across the globe. But apparently we would rather read about royal love and pop stars, or if we decide to commit, the latest political scandal or Trump’s latest tweet. That’s sexy. That sells. That gets us to click.

Why do we care more about the fantasy wedding of a British prince, than about the LBGTQ suffering happening in Egypt? Both stories are international, so we can’t just say Trump nationalism. There is an apathy for humanitarian crises in the United States, documented by the plethora of So-Many-Reasons-You-Should-Care articles. Do we really need to be told why we should care about human suffering? Apparently we do.

In the beginning of this year, activists and pundits discussed the political or resistance fatigue that the Left would face in battling the daily executive orders signed by the Trump administration and their ongoing undoing of Obama’s progressive administration. And they were right. Protest marches in January were millions strong; marches in September, only a thousand. If Americans struggle to hold fast to local political issues, it’s not surprising that we have even more trouble empathizing with international refugees.

Americans have an empathy problem. Even the more progressive of us may voice some initial concern to a colleague at the water cooler, but ultimately we choose indifference, because whatever is happening isn’t happening to us. The problems are too big, too old, too socially or politically ingrained. Too far away. Too black. Too female. Too gay. Too removed from our Netflix viewing schedules. Many of us recognize our apathy and feel guilty about it—we may even say so to friends—but then we quickly turn our attentions to royal weddings and who’s hosting the Golden Globes. It’s the opioid of the ethically guilty.

If you Google “move people into action,” you will get nearly 50 million results. We suffer from the Ostrich Effect. Not just about TV spoilers, but also about humanitarian situations that are too big or too difficult for us to comprehend or feel in our daily, American lives. Because compassion hurts. If we allow ourselves to feel connected to everything, we also develop a feeling of responsibility for everything. When we are compassionate, we are no longer one person alone, but active members of a community. As privileged Americans, our culture demands that if we grow strong enough to love the world and act on its behalf, we must also remain empty enough to still binge Netflix with everyone else, even though we know the horrors happening around us. It’s a hard balance to maintain. How do we go to work every day, out to happy hour with friends, and buy Christmas presents for our children, when we know what’s really going on? We don’t. And our media reflects this. We push these stories to the back of the paper, and instead enjoy the lighthearted debates about who would have to die so that Meghan could be queen.