As I first sat down to write an article concerning tragic incidents such as the Charlie Hebdo shooting, I couldn’t help but wonder if now was the right time.
My trepidation wasn’t due to moral or ethical qualms. Instead I wondered if by the time this article was published, its information would be old news. At the time of this writing, the Charlie Hebdo shootings occurred more than one week ago, and it seems like a new headline-stealing horror occurs every few days.
On Dec. 3 a grand jury failed to indict an officer in the murder — I refuse to say “death” — of a nonviolent man, despite the existence of video evidence. Later that month, tens of thousands of personal data files were stolen by hackers in retaliation for the impending release of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s “The Interview” comedy film. Threats of 9/11-style terrorism attacks were given, and the hackers stated that “the world will be full of fear.”
It can be difficult to not become disillusioned and desensitized by the perpetual stream of depressing news, but when the world looks its bleakest, it’s more important than ever to stay aware and fight for a positive change.
However, I am not writing this piece to advocate active change. Active change is of utmost importance, but before society can do that, it needs to practice something that is preached far less than it should be: empathy.
There’s a fine line between strong language and hateful and violent language. Take the recent deaths of unarmed black men such as Mike Brown and Eric Garner: I’ve seen and even heard those men referred to as “punks” and even “vile beasts.” On the other hand, I’ve noticed increasingly widespread conversations that refer to police officers as universally power-abusive and bigoted pigs.
Of course, the vulgar and ill-informed verbal responses to the accusations of police brutality paled in comparison to the senseless revenge killings of New York police officers after the Garner and Brown cases.
This kind of egregiously generalized hatred and wanton violence benefits no one. In an effort to state their opinions on the matter, people that use this kind of language and express these extremist beliefs are only widening the chasm between the public and the police; tension between these two parties is the last thing anyone needs. If we as a society are going to positively advance any social issue, we need to act in solidarity and understanding, not hate and paranoia.
Much ado has been made about how this generation of college students is entering a world rich in communication and interconnectivity. While we have and should continue to utilize the benefits of modern technology and foster change, it’s absolutely crucial that we do so in a constructive and thoughtful manner.
A separate, but no less important or tragic, issue is the aforementioned Charlie Hebdo shooting. Amidst the chaotic news coverage, one of my friends shared a Fox News video on Facebook. In the video, faux-intellectual Bill O’Reilly interviewed Lt. Col. Ralph Peters about his strategy to defeat jihadis in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings.
Peters stated that “you go wherever in the world the terrorists are and you kill them, you do your best to exterminate them, and then you leave behind smoking ruins and crying widows.”
Since fully deconstructing the quote’s disturbingly barbaric and destructive tone and general disdain for collateral damage would require another article entirely, I’ll assume that the more civilized readers of this piece will agree that Peters’ solution is essentially the antithesis of empathy.
The responses to Fox’s video were even more frightening. One commenter said that “this Islamic crap needs to be treated like the spreading disease that it is.” One individual was so overwhelmingly jubilant in Peters’ heroism that he couldn’t help but ignore conventional grammar and sentence structure: “Your right thanks for destroing terrorizm.”
Perhaps the most grisly trend of responses were the ones that built upon Peters’ idea, such as the fellow who advocated “killing all of the wives and children to stop the terrorists from reproducing.”
Responding in kind to acts and speeches inspired by hatred and bigotry is an infuriatingly short-term solution that only escalates whatever conflicts and tensions already exist. Before we take action, whether it be by speech or a comparably more material method, we need to pause, consider the consequences, and act as logically and compassionately as the situation will allow.
It sounds like kindergarten rhetoric, but when you look at the rampant vandalism and riots in the wake of police brutality or the racist and religiously-insensitive responses to incidents such as the Charlie Hebdo shooting, it’s apparent that outrage all too often overrules logic in times of crisis.
The actions of a few, be they police officers or religious fanatics, shouldn’t be viewed as a representation of their organizations as a whole. Our generation may have the power to share our voices and take action, but we need to use this power intelligently and compassionately. We may be able to actively shape our world, but if we forget to practice empathy in the process, the ease of communication may do more harm than good.
Tyler Hersko studies journalism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @tylerhersko.