In Newtown millions of dollars have gone unspent. The Red Cross is holding over 100 million dollars of aid for relief for hurricane Sandy. Money is pouring in for aid in Oklahoma. In other words, at times we have given more than can be used. And people continue generously to give. Yet we know there is daily destruction in the Sudan, in Congo and elsewhere and efforts languish as people die.
Why are we so generous with tragedies in our backyard and so unmoved by those we know about but do not see?
Our eager efforts on behalf of certain catastrophes seems to follow philosopher Derek Parfit's theory of the "bias of the near." Parfit says that both in space and in time our attention is captured by what is close. I will agree to an engagement in six months that I would disdain this evening, because six months is so very far away. I will feed the starving child who is standing in front of me but ignore one who starves across the globe. I will help when pictures fill my TV screen, but simply knowing of suffering far away leaves me unmoved.
Although we would think the proliferation of television news and Internet immediacy would help, in some ways it has made this problem worse. We used to be able more fully to focus on problems that were far away. LIVE AID, Unicef and Save the Children were the predominant charities, rarely focused on immediate disasters or shots of devastation. But we have reoriented ourselves to help what we can see, what feels close. We saw the tornado. The tragedy of death was etched in tearful faces. We watched as a woman spoke of her lost home, or a child of his missing pet. It was on our screens 24 hours a day, demanding our immediate attention.
Our most intimate device, our cellphones, showed us the swirling devastation. When each person is a camera, the developed world will have its tragedies endlessly displayed. The world has been made near, but only part of it. So if we are not assailed by daily, intimate stories and pictures of pain we grow gradually less sensitive to catastrophe beyond the borders of our own pictorial vista. Yes there are daily, devastating tragedies in the Congo. We do not see the wounded children or the women who have been brutalized. Out of sight, out of mind, out of luck.
Bias of the near may be a powerful principle of human function but once we know how we work we can work to change it. The remarkable thing about actions that spring from deep human nature is that, at times, knowing about them can change their direction and velocity. Know anger is destructive and you count to ten. Know that you tend to be passive and you may rise. Know that you ignore what is far away and perhaps you will pay attention.
Part of the argument for turning down the blast of social media is to make the world as a whole a bit more distant and therefore more equal. The parched and needy places we cannot see are real as well. Unheard cries may not make it onto our screens but they should still stir our hearts.