Think of the many tribes you belong to, the census check boxes you’d mark off if you could. There’d be one for gender, one for religion, another for race; political party; home country or state—there’s no shortage of categories you could claim. Depending on your perspective and how broadly you are willing to consider your personal identity, all could cede their importance to the category of human being, if you’d rather not limit yourself to what may be considered problematic labels.
Our group identities, some which cannot intersect, inform the issues we consider relevant to our everyday lives. This can be helpful when we expend our energies trying to effect positive change, such as by becoming activists to bring our rights in equal parity with those granted to others. But it can also be unhelpful, and even counterproductive, when we internalize the burdens of the world and claim them as our own. What should be empathy for victims, their families, and their communities following an attack or injustice, turns, rather selfishly, into self-victimization by those who claim that attack or injustice for themselves.
Others Suffer, Why Can’t I?
In today’s broadcast-ready world, we are never far away from tragedies that happen in other countries, to other people, or in our own neighborhoods. Sometimes we are witness to natural disasters, other times we see the aftermath of a man-made attack. We pray for Puerto Rico and hold vigils for New Zealander’s Muslims because, in those moments, we recognize our common humanity in the face of shocking horror. We re-commit to spreading love, not hate; love, not fear—we remember that the labels we carry are silly; rich, poor, black, Christian, none matter to the hurricane. We recognize that the labels we carry, rather than free us, make us targets for those who depend on the same strength of those labels. We empathize with the afflicted, and we commit to creating a world where, regardless of label, you can feel safe in your person and secure in your beliefs.
We aim to say that, while your label may guide you, it does not define you. We are allowed complexity. Again, some of the groups to which we belong may never intersect—may not even want to—but still we balance identities that, under an outsider’s view, clash. And they do, unless somehow we justify our belonging through clever persuasion or a reclassification of terms, such as by having Jesus’ message of love override the Bible’s condemnation of gays, for example, or by having Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation suddenly make marriage after divorce not adulterous behavior. I like to focus on religious matters because religious beliefs can be interpreted in so many ways that what you believe in is more a show of your mental flexibility than it is the soundness of your faith. Going beyond religion, this method of justifying, re-classifying, maybe even excusing, is the means by which we claim opposite identities.
What happens when we lay claim to the tragedy that affected one group of people? If, let’s say, we were not physically injured, no one we knew was ever in danger, but still we felt that we were a part of the lives lost, is it right to number yourself as one of the victims? In my view, one opens up the door for similar claims to be made by groups we do not agree with. By claiming suffering that was not personally felt, injustice that never personally happened, or fear or anger that one was never subject to, do we not cheapen all of those things for whom it has happened? Do we not increase the tribalism we all recognize as being, not only counterproductive to the reinforcement of a cosmopolitan world, but also dangerous to our everyday lives? Are we not being reductionist with ourselves, in effect reducing what makes us unique and replacing the originality of our existence with the generality of injustices that may happen to us? What’s to stop the Christian in America from feeling persecuted when, from her calm suburban home, she claims solidarity with beheaded ISIS victims, and so feels persecuted?
What’s to stop the white populace from feeling overrun when, from their majority territory, they aim to push back against migrants in another continent, and so feel endangered? The suffering is not theirs, the danger is not their own—if there is even any danger to be had—but when we emphasize and prioritize our labels in the wake of a new tragedy, we are not empathizing with victims—instead, what one says is: I am the victim.
There’s no shortage of injustice in the world. There’s no need to rush and claim the title of “oppressed individual” by pretending that you are personally affected by something, when you are not. Your turn will come, or it may not. But one would be a fraud to carry the weight of injustice, rather than stay vigilant against it because it’s one thing to understand what someone is going through, but it’s another entirely to rob their reality for your wished-for fantasy. If the suffering is not yours, it’s not yours. While we work to make the world more tolerant of one another—loving, even—that intent is set back by those who want a shoulder to cry on, rather than to lend a hand.