The Art of Unseeing Isn’t Hard to Master
As the world focuses on chemical attacks in Syria, corpses in Raqqa, another Syrian city, remain unburied six months after coalition defeat of Islamic State forces. Certain cognitive and social factors make people less likely to pay attention to long-lasting crises. This has devastating effects on the people who are suffering from these crises, and makes it less likely that action will be taken to prevent the escalation of that crisis.
China Mieville’s science fiction novel, The City and the City, takes place in two spatially interwoven cities (Beszel/Ul Qoma) whose citizens only perceive the city in which they live, while ‘unseeing’ the other city. In this way, citizens of one city live alongside citizens of another city while being unaware of their existence. As I left the article regarding under-reported crises, scrolling past articles about Beyonce’s performance at Coachella and currency inflation, I realized: the art of unseeing isn’t hard to master.
In their January 2018 report, “Suffering in Silence”, CARE identified the ten most under-reported crises of the past year. At least five of them, in North Korea, Eritrea, Burundi, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are ongoing. While North Korea’s nuclear program has received consistent media attention, the living conditions of the North Korean people, including the use of roughly 100,000 North Korea slave laborers in Europe reported by BBC three days ago, have been overshadowed by the clash of egos between the US and North Korean leaders. Eurostat reports that 1 in 50 Eritreans sought asylum in Europe from 2012 to 2015, many fleeing forced conscription. In an increasingly interconnected world, these crises exist alongside us, and yet they remain unseen.
One reason that these disasters are under-reported is practical: North Korea and Eritrea both have highly secretive governments, which makes getting accurate information on the situation difficult. The more details are provided regarding a situation, the more salient that situation becomes, regardless of whether or not those details are actually pertinent: psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman called this the conjunction fallacy. Lack of details regarding these crises may lead readers to view them as less salient than other, more detail-laden stories, regardless of the actual severity of the crisis.
Many of these disasters are long-running and complex. Conflict in the Congo, for example, is a resurgence of one of Africa’s longest-running wars, a complicated affair involving shifting loyalties, international interference, and identity politics. Complex problems require nuanced decisions that risk unfavorable outcomes and require large amounts of cognitive resources to address, and so we resort to decision avoidance. However, this is not a disaster that can be ignored, both for humanitarian and security reasons: an expansion of the conflict would have devastating impacts on regional security. In some cases, decision avoidance is achieved by ignoring disagreeable information, as is evident in the shock surrounding the Cambridge Analytica scandal: we knew that we were the product of social media platforms, but it took a sudden revelation of new information to make the repercussions of this information salient. When acceptance of a disaster becomes the status quo, we develop certain cognitive pathways that maintain this thinking, and it takes sudden, startling information to force a change in perceptions.
Acknowledging that these crises occur and that they are undesirable implies a responsibility to do something about this crises, especially when, as in Raqqa, the disaster was at least partially caused by US action. At the same time, risk aversion and the cognitive burden of developing a solution prevents the observer from doing something about it. This results in cognitive dissonance, or discomfort resulting from conflicting behaviors, beliefs, or attitudes. Ultimately this discomfort results in a change of either actions or attitudes and, because the complexity of the situation makes action difficult, our attitude changes from one of concern to one of apathy.
The manner in which we receive information may also influence our response. Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains argues that use of the internet makes people more distractible and less able to engage in the kind of deep, thoughtful reflection required to understand and respond to complex disasters. Most global news sources are based in Western countries, which expect stability and peace in Western nations, but have cognitive anchors linking developing countries to expectations of violence. Because of this, Western media depicts disasters in the Global North as anomalies–and thus, events that require a decision–and disasters in the Global South as the status quo, a phenomenon evidenced in the coverage of the bombings in Paris and Beirut. Restrictions on journalists and comparatively lower rates of travel to these countries pose barriers to both formal and informal information and understanding, making it more difficult for Western readers them to empathize with and be shocked by these crises.
Absent an intensification of these crises, which, as in Syria, make a response necessary, how can we disrupt this cycle of apathy and react to these crises before they intensify? It requires a change in attitude, a refusal to accept that what is must always be. Recent campaigns such as #MeToo show that persistent media attention and rejections of the status quo can and do create changes in perceptions. While social media poses certain risks to our privacy and cognition, it has also allowed for the rise of citizen journalists and international communication that can provide the information and attention necessary to make these disasters salient. However, these reports can only have an impact if we are willing to take the necessary time to delve into the situation and examine the effects that our own actions have on the perpetuation of these crises. Failure to do so results in the perpetuation of human suffering and runs the risk of escalating threats to our own security.
Kendra Brock is an Associate Editor at the Journal of Diplomacy and a first-year graduate student specializing in International Economics & Development and Foreign Policy Analysis.