The Empathy Trigger: How Aylan Kurdi Pierced Our Veil of Indifference

Like so many around the world, the heart-wrenching image of Aylan Kurdi has been haunting me since I first laid eyes on that small motionless body 5 days ago. More importantly, I've been reflecting on how this poignant image has seared our collective conscience; how Aylan Kurdi has moved us to finally pay attention to the deadly consequences of a civil war that have been unfolding before our eyes since 2011. How did Aylan Kurdi pierce the thick veil of indifference, our indifference as an international community, to one of the largest humanitarian crises of our generation? I would answer this with one word: Empathy.

In movies and in sports, people always seem to root for the underdog. As one psychologist put it, we have this expression of pleasure when we see the misfortune of others - particularly powerhouse teams or dominant characters that appear to 'win' so effortlessly. But why doesn't this ever apply in the political context of human rights? Why do some causes catch the imagination and sympathy of mainstream society while others are continuously forgotten?

The difference between popular vs. unpopular causes is the strange psychology of what I call the 'Empathy Trigger'. Unsurprisingly, empathy is becoming an increasingly difficult emotion to trigger in a society where we are constantly bombarded by the violent images and stories of daily atrocities occurring in our world today.

I think of the North Korean people being tortured in modern day concentration camps, the astounding number of Indigenous women being kidnapped and murdered in Canada...and of course, the Syrian crisis - what many have been calling the worst refugee crisis of our era. As with many 'underdog' causes, this crisis was largely ignored until the heartbreaking image of 3-year old Aylan Kurdi swept over social media and finally caught the attention of mainstream society.

So how did this happen? Some claim the power of the art of photography; a well-composed mastery of the art, taken by a Turkish news photographer who was merely doing her job. Others claim the power of the media and the courage of media outlets to widely publish such a controversial picture. I agree that there is power behind the art of photography and an undeniably powerful role played by the media. But more than a piece of art or a trending hashtag, for most of us, the image of Aylan Kurdi moved us to feel something much deeper; an emotion, when triggered, which evokes the very essence of our humanity. Empathy.

Psychologists claim that empathy is most commonly triggered by the "identifiable victim effect" - the tendency of people to care and expend resources when there is a specific identifiable victim as opposed to a larger vague group of unidentified victims. In other words, empathy is more likely to be triggered when we see the image of a forlorn three year boy face-down on a beach - a boy that could have been one of ours, our neighbor's, our friend's - as opposed to the facts and figures of a crisis which is now claiming over 4 million refugees, over 11 million displaced, and over 200,000 dead.

Thus is the peculiar nature of the Empathy Trigger. Despite staggering statistical numbers, empathy is not triggered by reason, logic or statistics. Empathy is fickle, unpredictable and rooted within the unstable grounds of human emotion.

For fellow advocates of underdog causes, this means that we need to be smarter about how we advocate. I used to think the crux of human rights work was raising awareness. All I needed to do, as an advocate, was to bring awareness and to shed light on cold hard facts. Once people saw the facts, the evidence, the black and white figures...they were bound to be moved and to take action.

Unfortunately, this rarely happens. As one journalist put it, she didn't even think twice before tweeting the image of Aylan Kurdi. She had been posting bloodier images of Syrian children being maimed or killed on a daily basis. For 4 years. Indeed, images of the desperate and deadly crossing of refugees across the Mediterranean have been circulating on social media for months.

So yes, Aylan Kurdi finally got a 'win' for the underdogs. But the aftermath of this piercing is where the real challenges lie for policy-makers. The aftermath of how to politically and legally deal with this humanitarian crisis may be a complicated drawn-out process. But may this complexity of reality never be an excuse for not allowing us to feel empathy and to take action. We can and should identify with the death of any member of humankind - no matter how remote or how challenging the cause of death.

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