SALT LAKE CITY — As I watched Notre Dame go up in flames Monday morning, I couldn't help but contrast what I saw on television with an image in my mind from about a year ago. I was living in France at the time, and it was almost spring. I was walking alone in Paris, energized by the intoxicating atmosphere of the city at night: music, lights, open-air cafes with tables spilling out onto the streets, the whiff of cigarette smoke, snatches of conversation from couples walking by.
I was on my way to buy a train ticket for the South of France. Determined to prove to myself that I was Paris street savvy, I refused to use Google Maps to get to the station, although I wasn’t entirely certain of the way. I cut down a random side street, and when I emerged onto the main street and looked up to get my bearings, there was Notre Dame.
It glowed white, and illuminated the bare branches of trees growing around it until they glowed white, too. I could make out the arcs of each flying buttress. The spire rose to an indistinguishable point in the sky. The cathedral, which is incredibly tall and imposing when viewed from the front, appeared long and lithe from the side. Another word, unexpectedly, came to mind: comforting.
I had never been to the cathedral alone — I had always gone with a group of people, and we had posed for pictures in front of it, with hundreds of other tourists in the background. But now, looking up alone at the cathedral and its pale light, almost a year after moving to France, finally fluent in the language, I had the strange sensation that I belonged there, and that Notre Dame was no longer a tourist destination for me, a landmark to check off the bucket list. It felt like part of my new home.
I almost didn’t photograph Notre Dame that night, not wanting to break, or cheapen, whatever special moment had just occurred between me and the cathedral. But it was so ghostly and beautiful that I couldn’t resist. Now, I’m grateful I took the picture.
When I happened to glance up at the TV this morning and saw that Notre Dame was on fire, I had an immediate, visceral reaction of shock and horror. My WhatsApp flooded with messages from the roommates I’d had in France: “Did you see Notre Dame?” “Don’t even talk about it, I’m crying.” I felt personally afflicted, broken, as if the tragedy had occurred in my backyard.
But I also felt conflicted. Why, when I see photos on my Facebook feed of Aleppo in ruins, do I not feel that same rush of self-identification, of personal loss? And it’s not just me. Many other tragedies, of similar or larger magnitude, pass unnoticed and unmarked by the majority of Americans, with limited TV coverage, minimal tweets and muted discussion.
After the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in Paris, which killed 17 people, Facebook rolled out a feature called Temporary Profiles, in which users could overlay their profile pictures with the colors of the French flag to represent their solidarity with the victims of the attacks and the French in general. There was also a feature called Safety Check, allowing people in the vicinity of the attack to indicate if they were safe.
The rolling out of these features in response to the Paris attack raised questions about what is perceived as a tragedy, and why. Molly McHugh wrote in Wired, “Why wasn’t Safety Check turned on for the people of Beirut, where suicide bombings [in November 2015] killed 43? Or Syria? Or Kenya? Why weren’t there temporary flag filters for these countries, similarly ravaged by tragedy? What was it that set Paris apart?”
Perhaps it's the gravitational pull that Paris exerts on Americans. Think cult classic films "An American in Paris," "Moulin Rouge" and "Midnight in Paris." Paris is the Eiffel Tower, the Champs-Elysees, the Arc de Triomphe. It’s the capital of cuisine and romance and wine and fashion and architecture. It’s New York’s older, more glamorous sister. It’s one of the most-visited cities in the world — in 2017, 17.4 million foreigners traveled to Paris. Many people feel a connection to Paris by virtue of having been there.
This could help explain why tragedies occurring in France, as opposed to other countries, have been especially resonant for so many Americans.
“The human mind has a prewired tendency to think in terms of groups,” said Emile Bruneau, a research associate and lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania and lead scientist at the Beyond Conflict Innovation Lab who studies how cognitive biases can drive conflicts.
Bruneau said that we feel empathy for people based on whether we consider them to be a part of our “group” or not. Groups can be defined along a number of lines — such as age, gender, skin color, religion, caste, culture and language — and groups can also be placed in a hierarchy.
“We decided during colonial times that it should be a hierarchy based on skin color, and that's stuck with us. We have a tendency to be comfortable with hierarchies and with the idea that some groups are better than others,” without even consciously thinking about it, Bruneau added.
He pointed out that last week, a man burned down three historically black churches — each of which was over 100 years old — in Louisiana. Yet the news barely made a blip compared to the Notre Dame fire, which received wall-to-wall coverage on cable news.
“The awareness that empathy is selectively applied to people who are more like you is a really uncomfortable realization, but it can be a really important one in recognizing how subtle these biases can be,” Bruneau said.
Two studies Bruneau conducted back up this point. In one study, people of Arab and Israeli descent were shown articles about suffering in their countries, and the empathy zones of their brains lit up. But those regions didn't light up when they were shown articles about South American conflicts. Another study found that when white and African American subjects watched as peoples' hands were pricked with a pin, white people were more likely to feel empathy for the whites being pricked and African Americans were more likely to feel empathy for the African Americans being pricked.
I spoke with one of my college friends, Nayab Khan, who is a Muslim community organizer and recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice, about the selective application of empathy.
Khan, 22, said that she noticed many of the people who shared social media posts about the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks were silent about the recent terrorist attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
“We've been taught to think of the pain white people go through as worse than the pain black and brown people go through. But you don’t get to pick and choose what tragedy you want to highlight based on which subset of humans seems closer to you,” Khan said.
She added that news of tragedies and mass violence in Syria, Yemen, Mali and Sudan aren’t met with as much uproar by the Western media and by Americans in general because Middle Eastern and African countries are perceived “as underdeveloped nations where things like that always happen. It isn’t news, it’s a reality. And the fact that we don’t have an uproar about it makes it a reality, because we don’t do anything about it.”
So, what should we do?
Bruneau said the answer isn't always more empathy — which sometimes can cause us to focus on what's right in front of our nose, at the expense of others elsewhere who might be more in need of help. And, he added, too much empathy can even incite acts of violence.
"If you feel like your group is in conflict with another group, the more empathy you have for your group, the more likely you are to be antagonistic to the other group," Bruneau said.
Going forward, "we might want to rely on a more rational evaluation of where we can give the most help," Bruneau said.
For some people, that might mean donating to rebuild Notre Dame. For others, that might mean volunteer work abroad or at home, or community organizing.
Before I left work this afternoon, a former coworker in France texted me: "Mon ami m'a dit il y a le feu à Notre Dame. On n'y a pas cru. Ça touche un élément du pays qui parle à tout le monde."
"My friend told me Notre Dame was on fire. We didn't believe it. It touches a piece of the country that speaks to everyone."