Moral one-upmanship on Facebook: the story behind the story?
April 17, 2013 7:29 PM   Subscribe

So it seems like the Boston bombings have caused a sizeable minority of my FB friends to start admonishing everyone for not being more upset about 'real' bombings in the middle east/ deaths in Africa. (None of my friends are American, if that matters, all are from the UK). While I too am sad more atrocities from other continents don't get the attention in our media they deserve, I can't help but feel the impulse behind the statements is kind of underhand and nasty in a way I can't put my finger on. Can you explain what motivations drive this?

N.B. They are not activists and don't do charity events, but will sign FB petitions and share the 'if you care about kids with cancer, like this' pics. So they are not advocating for us to donate to causes or go down and donate blood, etc.
posted by abbagoochie to Human Relations (43 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: There's an incentive to appear different, even if the way you're acting/appearing different serves the same hegemonic norms you're resisting. This would be an instance of that.
posted by LukeLockhart at 7:33 PM on April 17, 2013 [6 favorites]

Fallacy of moral equivalence.
posted by dfriedman at 7:41 PM on April 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: You already figured it out -- it's one-upsmanship, plain and simple, mixed in with a little iconoclasm.
posted by Etrigan at 7:41 PM on April 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I will relate a story that might make their motivations clear. But it is possible these are just jerks who can't stand the attention not being about *them* constantly. If they can't "win" by making the biggest show of emotion, they will win by derailing the vibe. "I was bitching about bombings before it was popular."

Anyway, story: I was talking with a family member about a friend I had recently lost to brain cancer. Said family member related "my friend just got diagnosed with testicle cancer". Something about the way he said it mixed with my own grief, and I got the feeling he was trying to somehow one-up me. I made a rude comment about being able to live without one's testicles, but not without one's brain.

Sometimes people just don't want to hear "wow, that happened to me too". The emotion is too raw.
posted by gjc at 7:42 PM on April 17, 2013 [7 favorites]

Jezebel posted something related today - "Tragedy is Not a Competition: How to Talk About Boston."
posted by illenion at 7:46 PM on April 17, 2013 [5 favorites]

Can you explain what motivations drive this?

They're probably tired of America seemingly bring the center of the world. So any chance to do an unfavorable comparison of the US becomes a great opportunity to point how other countries do something better or have experienced more bombings.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:48 PM on April 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I can't speak to your friends' motivations, but I know some people in the US who are in general extremely critical of the U.S. government and our political culture (their politics tend towards anarcho-libertarian or far left) who have made comments on FB and elsewhere about this same thing. In essence they're arguing that the depth of feeling surrounding the events in Boston is hypocritical and/or ethnocentric given that the US is directly responsible for dozens of violent deaths around the world on a frequent basis, e.g. weddings geting bombed by accident in Afghanistan, etc. They believe a just world would see the same level of outrage over civilian deaths in other countries as a result of US military intervention. They're denying that moral equivalence is a fallacy, at least in some cases.

(Not endorsing this view, just trying to answer the question.)
posted by Wretch729 at 7:48 PM on April 17, 2013 [25 favorites]

Best answer: There was a whole digression on this phenomenon in the MeTa post related to the Boston thread starting here.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:51 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mod note: Folks, this is not the thread to put your smalltext asides in, please don't do that here. Thank you.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:54 PM on April 17, 2013

Best answer: I think, also, from a cultural/historical perspective, it can be helpful to remember that many people in the UK were alive at a time when the IRA and Royalists were very active, and bombings, bomb-threats, threats associated with terrorism were a - not exactly everyday - but a fairly common occurence.

Couple that to the changes in mass media that have occurred since that time, and the absolute saturation in the media of an event that - to them - is no more or less tragic - or relevant to them than many other everyday tragedies across the world that receive next to no coverage.

Then couple all that to a prevailing culture that generally frowns on excessive displays of emotion and more broadly hyperbole (as typified by mass media coverage of events like these now), and then couple all that to a culture that has had an often fraught relationship with American culture and perceived American feelings of exceptionalism, and I think you can see several different places where these sentiments could be coming from.

This is not to defend or validate them, but conversely, if the only answers you're looking for are ones that confirm your feeling that it's "underhanded and nasty", I can tell you there can be more complex reasons than that.
posted by smoke at 8:03 PM on April 17, 2013 [31 favorites]

There's a few of my Facebook friends who are doing this. They probably don't understand that 170 people were injured, and many people lost their limbs.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:06 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you everyone, a lot of food for thought here, and thank you DirtyOldTown for pointing me to the MeTa thread. Wretch729 and smoke: I'm keeping open to the idea that people may be coming at this from a valid place. I grew up in the UK, was evacuated from school 6 times a year for bomb threats, was present when my hometown was bombed (and knew the boy who died), and was also there for the bombing Manchester city centre. So I can see where that's coming from.
posted by abbagoochie at 8:17 PM on April 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

Maybe it is one up manship, maybe it is pointing out disagreements with foreign policy or disagreements with the press's way of describing certain people's lives as being worth more than other, or maybe it is a lament for all the deaths and hurt going on world wide and feelings of hopelessness.
posted by mutt.cyberspace at 8:23 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This feeling is common among my social group. I'd say we feel that certain deaths are ignored, so there is real resentment when other deaths do get attention. I actively protested both Iraq wars, and I live in a city where young black and latino men die by violence in the triple digits each year. Deaths in the Middle East attributable to US foreign policy, and here at home due to domestic policy, get very little media considering their impact within those two communities. Obviously I was appalled by what happened in Boston and cried about it even though I had no personal connection. But I found it impossible not to feel resentment that some lives are more highly valued than others.
posted by latkes at 8:29 PM on April 17, 2013 [29 favorites]

posted by rhizome at 8:38 PM on April 17, 2013

Best answer: When traveling, I noted that a lot of people were very anti-american. It was to the degree that most of them could not sympathize with any of America's tragedies because they thought the country had it coming. I don't agree, but maybe that's how some of your friends feel.
posted by cyml at 8:51 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'd say we feel that certain deaths are ignored

Just to add to this, I've noticed that some politically minded people on Facebook get criticized for "always posting depressing things" whenever they talk about other (non-Western) atrocities. This leads to them having a bit of a sarcastic "Oh gosh, I'm sorry if me caring about human life is interrupting you posting pictures of your lunch/child." attitude. Then, whenever there's an act of terror on American soil, suddenly that's all anyone can talk about and this attitude can manifest in what you're seeing now.

Facebook is obviously very different depending on who you're friends with, so this may or may not be relevant.
posted by ODiV at 8:53 PM on April 17, 2013 [12 favorites]

Best answer: I find that I didn't have a particularly strong emotional reaction to the Boston bombing. The unnecessary death and injury sadden me, to be sure, but I don't find myself weeping or losing sleep over it. So it goes. Perhaps age has made me jaded and cynical; but age has also provided me the wisdom not to judge those who do have a strong emotional reaction, and also not to feel that I am being judged by others for the mildness of my own feelings.

If I had the same lack of strong emotional reaction while many others were expressing such reactions, but without the accompanying wisdom, I might try to justify—to myself as much as to others—my lack of strong reaction by noting far "worse" tragedies which do not provoke as much of an emotional reaction in others.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:00 PM on April 17, 2013 [6 favorites]

Objectively, the US has done far worse things to people around the world, constantly and for decades than has ever been done to Americans via terrorism. That's a simple fact. It's a poor time and place to point that out on facebook. But the motivation for a lot of people is to get Americans to pay attention, however they can, to the misery we inflict on other people.
posted by empath at 9:15 PM on April 17, 2013 [12 favorites]

Are they just being contrarian? When you have a whole army of people on Facebook constantly posting about Boston, maybe the temptation is high to resist or undermine their outrage.
posted by deathpanels at 9:24 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: They don't want to feel pain over this tragedy. Bonus, some liberal white guilt.
posted by desuetude at 9:35 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think a lot of people respond much more strongly to the suffering of people they feel are similar to them in some way, and these responses are expressing criticism of that worldview. I think there is a certain amount of justice to that criticism, because a failure to empathise with people who are different from you leads to all sorts of problems eg. racism. (Though at the same time I recognise that an act of violence that occurs near you, in your city or your country, will impact you more than one in a country on the other side of the world that you've never been to.)

I don't think it's necessarily anti-Americanism, because I've seen similar things internally in Australia - eg. when there's a big flood or bushfire, people are really eager to give money to a relief effort, when the support will go to largely middle class homeowners who probably already have insurance to cover them. By contrast there is a lot less fervour about giving to causes supporting the genuinely poor and permanently homeless.
posted by Cheese Monster at 9:37 PM on April 17, 2013 [6 favorites]

I can understand the impulse. Imagine you live in a country where far worse carnage happens regularly but is barely considered newsworthy. How can that not seem like an implicit declaration that some lives are worth more than others? We often turn a blind-eye to the suffering of other peoples, even when we are partly responsible for that suffering.
So obviously we should have great sympathy for those who were harmed in Boston--but I don't think there is anything wrong with being reminded of our routine failure to have equal sympathy for many other people who experience the same sort of harms but are just a bit father away from us.
posted by slipperynirvana at 9:43 PM on April 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I wondered about this myself, as I watched Twitter fill up with "I used to live in Boston/I once ran the marathon" tweets and then started to see #prayforafghanistan-type tweets appear. Both types bugged me slightly, even though I felt aligned with the underlying impulses (expressing compassion for the victims by asserting a personal connection, in the first case, and in the second, expressing compassion for other victims by highlighting media inattention).

Smoke's point about a distaste for excessive displays of emotion helped me understand part of my squirminess over the outpouring of tweets. When the expectation is we must mourn publicly (if we have any sort of public/social media presence) then I think an American (?) culture of grief has edged too far into performance. It also reveals the impulse to make a tragedy yours by focusing on your experience of the tragedy-via-media or tragedy-via-a-member-of-your-clan.

Back in December 2005, during the aftermath of that massive tsunami, I remember yelling at the tv as a South Korean newscaster reported on the survival of a group of Korean tourists on a south Thailand beach. "WHAT ABOUT EVERYONE ELSE!!!!!!"
posted by spamandkimchi at 10:00 PM on April 17, 2013 [6 favorites]

From my seat (in canada), it's got everything to do with the seeming inability of US foreign policy to go a year without bombing civilians, any time in my life, and related inability of its society to ever talk about it publicly. It makes moments like this feel like ... possible opportunities to maybe, just once, recognize "randomly killing civilians" for the horrible thing it actually is, and maybe try to stop.
posted by ead at 11:05 PM on April 17, 2013 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Some of the coverage for the Boston bombings has been a bit over the top. Things like "Everyone on the planet knew within moments that something terrible had happened in Boston on a star-spangled holiday" (which, uh, no). It's pretty off-putting to be honest.

There is a constant, usually low level, message in the western media how great and wonderful and all powerful and important America is to the exclusion of everything else and after a while it just grates. A lot of it is because these days I'm exposed to actual USA based media to a far greater extent than pre-internet times (so of course the viewpoint is skewed, it's not written for me in the first place), but it creeps into the media of my own countries too to some extent.

Then when the hyperbole starts up sometimes it pushes people over the edge into basically not wanting to hear it anymore. That's when comments pointing out that other people are dying too start to seem a lot more reasonable.
posted by shelleycat at 12:29 AM on April 18, 2013 [11 favorites]

Best answer: If you think it's nasty and underhanded somehow, try to understand how America's reaction to the event looks from the outside.

3 people are killed in a bombing and the entire country brims with grief. It's everywhere, all available media is saturated with it. People that have no connection to these victims apart from living in the same country are reporting that they are crying about it.

If you are outside the country and aware of the terrible things that America does all the time and you also know that barely anyone even remarks upon these things. This national outpouring of grief looks jingoistic, it feels out of proportion. And it has the potential to be incredibly dangerous.

Why is a grief storm dangerous in America? Because it can be used as an excuse to attack places or used to justify doing other horrible things.

So, in some ways you can see this reaction to be born out of fear and frustration.
posted by aychedee at 12:47 AM on April 18, 2013 [18 favorites]

It's such thoughtless knee-jerk rhetoric I bet most don't consider how these stock statements are received. Hating America is a national pastime, and it's not even about foreign policy. Some people even don't like silly things like American customer service. (weird) I also think different standards are applied to Americans over here. I mean people here in London are still upset about the IRA.

Most people I've spoken to have expressed sadness or dismay about Boston but maybe they aren't our to make a poimt on fb so you hear leds from them?
posted by BAKERSFIELD! at 12:49 AM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm English, and watching the news on Boston is interesting to me not because three people have died (obviously that's sad, but not newsworthy in itself), but because of the wider impacts the event will have on domestic and foreign policy in the U.S.

I think some people (lots on my facebook too) are conflating the amount of news coverage with the value of people's lives. A charitable reading of their reactions is that they are trying to redress the balance of coverage, and to raise awareness about another tragedy (using the argument that all lives are equally valid, and as thirty people died there, it's 10x as important). An uncharitable reading is that they are using this as an excuse to accuse the U.S of hypocrisy or to draw attention to its failures abroad.

This article has been appearing over and over again on my facebook, and it makes a decent attempt at arguing the America-perpetrates-this-kind-of thing-all-the-time-so-why-are-they-complaing line.
posted by Ned G at 3:58 AM on April 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

People often fail to recognize intent when they are feeling critical. There is a difference between accidentally killing civilians and intentionally killing them, between creating terror as a side effect of what someone is doing and as the intended effect. But when you have an axe to grind, that is meaningless to you.

Also, the constantly political types of people I have run into are generally pretty black and white in their thinking. They find it difficult to hold two concepts in their mind at once. Normal people can simultaneously feel bad for Boston and be critical of the US's GWOT. But the hyper-political can't.
posted by gjc at 4:18 AM on April 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: ...the absolute saturation in the media of an event that - to them - is no more or less tragic - or relevant to them than many other everyday tragedies across the world that receive next to no coverage.

I have not engaged in the type of behavior you described, but have been tempted to, and this is why. It's not just outside the US, but even within the US it seems somewhat predictable that certain events get much more media coverage than others. Missing white woman syndrome is an example of this. In regards to the events in Boston and now West, Tx, I am left to wonder why they are getting such news coverage when a disaster of similar magnitude took place near my hometown and received hardly a blip on the national news, despite the fact that 9 people died and an entire town's economy was devastated. Since media coverage seems to influence things like legislation and economic aid this can have real effects down the line. For example, even though the OKC bombing was huge news, it paled in comparison to 9-11; the government's compensation of victims differed significantly as well.
posted by TedW at 5:18 AM on April 18, 2013 [10 favorites]

I would posit that for some people, tragedies are just incredibly difficult to wrap their heads around.

Salman Rushdie said, “Our human tragedy is that we are unable to comprehend our experience, it slips through our fingers, we can't hold on to it, and the more time passes, the harder it gets...My father said that the natural world gave us explanations to compensate for the meanings we could not grasp. The slant of the cold sunlight on a winter pine, the music of water, an oar cutting the lake and the flight of birds, the mountains' nobility , the silence of the silence. We are given life but must accept that it is unattainable and rejoice in what can be held in the eye, the memory, the mind.”

And in cases like you mention, maybe the scope of the act, of any act of terrorism is just so unbelievable, that people grab at whatever mental comparisons they can to try to make some sense of things.
posted by kinetic at 5:29 AM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think sometimes when something big and unusual happens people have trouble wrapping their minds around it. Some people may respond with tears, others may not feel a powerful reaction to the event. In both cases individuals are also in the process of understanding their own reactions and feelings.

I feel this is why some people might roll their eyes at what they view as false emotiveness among people who may honestly be struggling while others are taken aback by what they view as a holier-than-thou attitude by people who may be trying to put the event in perspective.

Everyone is entitled to their own feelings. And no one is obligated to justify those feelings for others.

Just breathe easy and try to process Boston in the best way you know how.
posted by donut_princess at 5:57 AM on April 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Honestly, I don't understand how anyone does NOT feel this way. I have felt this way about the media coverage of every tragedy in the past 30 years. The rubric about what gets media attention in the US and what does not reflects the inherent inequalities within the US in general.

I chose not to post these feelings on social media, because I know it is not the popular view. And, most people reading those kind of posts do not hear that I am very much saddened by the deaths in Boston, but I am wondering why they are not equally saddened by the deaths in other parts of the world.

A great example in my own city is that when there is a murder in a white, middle-class part of town, there is news coverage, calls for investigations, ongoing updates, etc., but when there is a murder in a Black, poor part of town, it gets less than an inch in the police blotter.
posted by hworth at 7:26 AM on April 18, 2013 [6 favorites]

Best answer: People react based on the information they have to react to. Depending on which country you live in, your information about America differs drastically. So very many people make accusatory comments about America's apathy because they assume that we have access to the same information that they do. What they don't realize is that a tragedy caused by American actions overseas, that receives tons of media coverage in their country, may not even be reported at all in America.

Example: lets say that an American military action kills 27 civilians in a foreign country.

American media: stuff about the president, celebrities, buy Cheerios!, oh, and some civilians may have been killed in an overseas military action, maybe, but we're not sure.

Foreign media: crazy warmongering American's kill 27 innocent people and don't give a damn, as usual. Also, buy Cheerios!

From a British person's point of view, I can see how they could view Americans as being extremely self-centred and disrespectful of human life other than our own. Given the information they're provided versus what we are, it makes sense.
posted by Shouraku at 7:40 AM on April 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: It's kind of like when a blizzard hits New York and kills 5 people, and the Canadians are all like "you call that snow?".

Uniquely among first world nations, the British are blasé about terrorist bombings, having experienced hundreds of them due to the IRA bombing campaigns that stretched through the 70s and 80s.

From their perspective this attack is bad, but not as bad as the bomber intended (the evil bastard probably thought he'd kill tens or hundreds), and was less deadly than the a typical IRA two bomb attack like the Birmingham pub bombings of 1974.

It's not one-upmanship, it's perspective. It's the effect of having a lot of similar bad experiences to compare a new bad experience to.
By contrast, the British were really shocked by 9/11 because it was completely beyond the scope of the terrorist attacks they had experience of.
posted by w0mbat at 8:50 AM on April 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think these people are being pretty tactless, but I can see where they are coming from. I find the mass expression of grief over the incident to be hard to relate too. Certainly it is a tragedy for the victims and their loved ones and I am sorry for them, but more people are probably killed every five minutes in car crashes and there aren't millions of random strangers mourning them. It seems a little, well, disingenuous and I can see why people might tempted to push back against that.
posted by Jess the Mess at 9:09 AM on April 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

You have to remember that British people posting about this on Facebook are probably not primarily reacting to US media coverage, and their intended audience is not from the US; it's all the other British people on their Facebook feed.

Most Brits (reading these messages on Facebook) aren't personally enormously upset or confused or emotionally caught up in this incident. Of course we think it's awful, but, generally speaking, it's not personal (except maybe to those in the running community).

So when people post the sort of sentiments you mention, we're comparing the British press reaction, with British press reaction to other far larger foreign atrocities that happened to brown people.

Most of us are probably not suggesting that people in the US right now should stop being upset and start thinking about Afghanistan.

The implication is rather that British press is unnecessarily US-centric and white-people-centric and perhaps we might have equal coverage of atrocities here irrespective of the colour of the affected people's skin.

I'm pretty sure that if it had been a domestic tragedy, we'd mostly be postponing those conversations for far longer while we processed the emotional and practical side of things.
posted by emilyw at 10:34 AM on April 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I react internally much the same way to these instances.

For me personally, depending on the severity and scope of a tragedy and its circumstances, the vitriol I feel towards those who partake in what you describe is one or more of a three-part defense of my psyche:

Part one: Is a normalizing, albeit ego-driven, procedure. I cannot avoid being reminded on social media, TV, or print that scary thing "X" has happened, so my brain rationalizes it into a self-righteous diatribe about how tens/hundreds/thousands of X are killed/hurt in similar circumstances every day, but there's nary a whisper, about these things. The people who are lamenting this current situation are sheep for playing into the hands of the media/fake social frenzy. Using this intellectual elitism, I hold myself aloof to much of the resulting hubbub, and therefore I can remain intellectually and emotionally "above" the tragedy. In my heart, it's about re-establishing control and a desire to quickly return my world to its normal state. To accept as accurate a massive outpouring of concern means that something is very wrong with the world that I live in, and I have enough problems in my life.

Which leads to Part two: I am a selfish, self-centered, human. I am concerned mainly with the welfare of myself and my family. While I certainly do not wish for tragedy to visit anyone, I find it difficult to bring myself to be honestly and significantly moved regarding hardships and tragedies in strangers' lives. Because of my egocentric view, when I emotionally view someone having a strong reaction which doesn't concern their world, I relate to my own experiences of having done so, which usually were social obligations or simply attempts to please others. If I can somehow determine that the reaction is heartfelt, I also have a negative reaction as I deeply envy those who are unguarded enough to connect with humanity and those whose lives are so seemingly sheltered that they are shaken to the core by a non-personal tragedy.

Which then leads to Part three: There are a lot of things about me that I don't like. The selfishness above, the desire to fit in, the distrust of the world and its people, the emotional disconnect I enact to protect myself from being hurt. General outpourings of love; misguided, warranted, unwarranted, facetious, honest, or in any range in between trigger some or all of these character defects, and I don't like thinking about the things about me that I don't like.
posted by Debaser626 at 10:37 AM on April 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

by "partake in what you describe" I don't mean your UK people who are making the reactionary FB posts, I mean the initial posts that bring about your UK friends' reaction...
posted by Debaser626 at 10:44 AM on April 18, 2013

Some people subscribe to the notion of universal suffering. A lost human life is equal - if it's in Boston or Bangladore (ie a random non-western place). Their postings might be reflections of this notion.

But second-guessing other peoples' motives (especially thru a medium as Facebook) is difficult. It's easy to (sub consciously) find support for ones own view.

When I've been in the position where I've genuinely been surprised or baffled by views my friend have held I've excercied the power of the Question. I've asked them about it. It works surprisingly well when one is genuinely interested in the answer.
posted by Rabarberofficer at 11:34 AM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow, thank you to everybody who's commented. I'm glad that through reading this I've been able to get some perspective. I felt uneasy mostly because there are so many utterly valid reasons to react to coverage of the bombings/US foreign policy, and I'm sure so many of the people I know are coming at this from an entirely reasonable/justifiable concern for social justice and wider empathy that would impact policy. Unfortunately the person I know most loudly attacking others for not making stat updates about Iraq/Africa has also recently talked unapologetically about actively preventing minorities being hired at her workplace, so I knew it wasn't real concern on her part but something else driving it. It was that that threw me. However, she's clearly an outlier and puzzling over her intentions maybe isn't productive anyway. I'm glad I asked this question and grateful to everyone who took the time to answer - thank you for being patient with my social/political illiteracy.
posted by abbagoochie at 2:22 PM on April 18, 2013

Truth be told, the Boston event hits so hard because it is home. Now, dispassionately/objectively speaking, the casualties/damages aren't that much in comparison to what is happening in rest of the world. It sounds your friends are well connected to the US media and can see the reactions/uproar over this event but find it hard to contextualize/ equate that to the actual scale of the damage. To them, this Boston is a non-home event just as a blast in Bagdad would be. So, they see both with the same emotions and find the relative reactions hard to understand. You should give them the benefit of the doubt.
posted by asra at 4:09 PM on April 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

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