We listened to a Freakonomics episode a while back that started out talking about the very public death of the giraffe in the Copenhagen Zoo and the worldwide outcry that followed it; and contrasting that with what seems to be the lack of worldwide outcry about the deaths of thousands, maybe even millions, of humans around the world in places like Syria. The host posits that it’s easier for us to get upset over animals than it is over other human beings.
I have a few ideas. Some are mine and one is something I learned when I was a Public Communications student at SU many years ago.
My idea is that what happened in Denmark is something that we don’t expect to happen in a “civilized” country...especially one that many of us like to think of as one of the most civilized in the world. Denmark represents the standard to which we’d like to raise countries like Syria (but first we have to get them up to ours). And so what happened in Denmark is shocking, simply shocking, because it seems so horribly contrary to everything we thought we knew about that country.
Syria, on the other hand, is a country where we know that things are seriously effed up. And quite frankly, whether it’s fair to the Syrian people or not, it wouldn’t be news at all if this story had played itself out in the Damascus Zoo. It would be just one more terrible thing from a terrible place.
But that doesn’t mean that we don’t care about the Syrian people...or any people less than we do about the giraffe. There is much outrage and much horror, but little that we feel we can do in the midst of a complicated situation that won’t just make things worse. We've been there before and we know that sadly, some civil wars just have to settle themselves without us getting involved. We’ve learned that we can’t fix everything. We’ve learned that if we try to fix everything, we end up not fixing anything.
And then there's what I call the “Gamma Quadrant” perspective. This comes from the concept on Star Trek that our galaxy is divided up into four different quadrants, with us being in Alpha.
I said to Cheryl once that I was glad that we didn’t know about intelligent life on other planets, because then we’d also have to know about the horrible things they did to each other...that we couldn't do anything about from here. And because I don’t know about them, the atrocities happening on Rigel VII don’t concern me. But once we were able to see them on super telescopes, how would we feel about what we saw going on? And at 860 light years away, we’d be helpless to do anything anyway, since the events we’d be seeing would be ancient history.
In practical terms, the “Gamma Quadrant” perspective says that there are places too distant for me to have any practical influence on, and that perhaps I need not be inundated with the daily horror data on, since I can’t do anything about it.
It’s worth noting that on April 20th, 1995, Cheryl came home and told me that something terrible had happened in the Gamma Quadrant.
The last one is one that I’m not going to get exactly right, and couldn’t easily find a version of online, so I’m going to wing it here. It goes as follows:
The man stabbed downtown is more newsworthy than two children trapped in a well across the state, which is more newsworthy than 10 people in a plane crash across the country, which is more newsworthy than 20 people killed in a mudslide in the neighboring country, which is more newsworthy than a bombing that kills 200 people in a country on the other side of the ocean, which is more newsworthy than a bloody ongoing conflict in a country you’re never going to visit anyway…because it’s one of those horrible places.
And frankly, while you may feel horrible about all of them, the farther they get from you, the less they affect you, and the less you feel you can do anything about them.
So going back to where we started, after the international community expressed its outrage about what happened in the Copenhagen Zoo, we can be pretty sure that that won’t happen there again. On the other hand, the international community has been expressing its outrage over events in Syria for a long time.
Things really suck in the Gamma Quadrant.