What Tragedy Will We Forget About Next?

Remember Kony 2012? Yeah, neither do I. To refresh your memory: in 2012, a 30 min video produced by a group called Invisible Children (an organization with its own story) that documented the history and war crimes of Lord's Resistance Army head Joseph Kony went viral, getting millions of retweets on Twitter and views on YouTube. People demanded action! Get Kony (what country is he from again?)! The campaign was soon forgotten, and quickly became a mechanism by which the media mocked young people for their "social media activism" that went nowhere. Just a few months ago, there was this plane that went missing after taking off from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. Maybe you've heard of it. We were riveted! What happened? Did a murderous Muslim pilot go on a suicide mission? Did a terrorist operative on board divert the plane to use it for a future 9/11-type plot? Was it, gasp, a zombie plane? How could we lose an airplane? We demanded answers!...for several weeks. Just within the past month, the world collectively lost its mind after hearing that Boko Haram, a terrorist group from Nigeria, kidnapped 200 schoolgirls while they were at their school taking an exam. We were outraged! We demanded action! We even started a hashtag...and it trended! The international outrage and frenzy to find these girls and get them back was palpable. And just now, I checked the websites of CNN, NBC News, and even the BBC, and found not a peep about the story (CNN, to be fair, did have a story about another murderous Boko Haram incident). To date, the girls have not been found.

I'm not saying I don't understand the initial outrage when we hear about such stories. It's human, after all, to hate a madman war criminal, to speculate wildly about a missing airplane, to feel outraged at the kidnapping and dehumanization of hundreds of girls just going to school. But I fear that our instantaneous reactions of shock and fear help us justify what ultimately happens: we forget. Empathy fatigue? Maybe. As a part of my work and research, I see and learn a lot about some very terrible things. The world is a big place, with a lot of people, and with as much joy and wonder that exists, there is also pain, humiliation, fear, injustice, terror. I don't doubt that most of us want to genuinely do something, but our attention never has the opportunity to stick to one tragedy for too long, because unfortunately, there are always more to come. Some are more made-for-TV coverage than others (200 missing schoolgirls, kidnapped by a crazy Muslim extremist group and hidden in an African jungle? A plane that disappears into the night?). Generally, unless an issue is personal to you, it's hard to sustain that hot sense of outrage for too long. It doesn't help when we generally feel a sense of helplessness, which is why I think "Twitter activism" has caught on so much; you can care, and make it public that you care, within the constraints of your own life, where you probably don't feel like there's much else you can do about the situation. 

I tend to agree that a huge component of activism and advocacy is education; people have to know about an issue to care about it. But when we stop there, what is truly gained? When we jump from one issue to another (and I'm not discounting the media's role in perpetuating outrage here), we tend to devalue them all. What really makes change is not momentary passion and outrage, but a long, slow, and often boring sustained effort. Real change takes time, and its not rarely glamorous or headline-making. Short term gain is often invisible or impossible, and long term results are too distant for people to care about unless, again, they are personally involved or affected. What we are left with is a lot of people who need help and attention, and don't get it, and other people who are outraged and mad, and don't know what to do with it. It seems to me that there must be a way for these two groups to meet somewhere in the middle. Good intentions are indeed good, but intention by definition is nearly meaningless in reality. Someday there may be a tragedy that you do care deeply and passionately about, and though you may scream from the rooftops about the injustice of it all, and be right, you will be drowned out by whatever is currently hot in the tragedy business. What do you think? How can we move from moments of outrage to sustained collective action that's meaningful?