Brussels vs Istanbul: The proximity principle and selective caring

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Photograph: 'Atatürk, Düzce, Turkey'

The social media response to the terrorist attacks in Brussels follow a pattern that most are familiar with. Either it is a (very understandable) shock and dismay, or it will be an argument along the lines of ‘this happens on a daily basis across the world, but why are we not equally outraged by these other attacks?’ So why is it that most of us do not really react or get emotionally involved with terrorist attacks in, say, Turkey or Iraq? This is where the proximity principle kicks in.

If one does not really feel affected by terrorism in a faraway country, does this mean that one is devoid of empathy or compassion? When most of us have a browse through our Facebook feeds we are likely to encounter individuals that certainly argue this case. This reasoning, however, fails to take into account the ‘Law of Proximity which dictates that ‘things that are near each other seem to be grouped together’. So let’s look at the implications of this in terms of terrorism.

In the ever more globalised world, we live in a physical proximity that has never mattered less. In terms of feeling secure, however, an attack that is geographically closer to us is more likely to stir up a strong emotional response. Many Brits will have visited Paris and Brussels and have memories and experiences from these places. Very few will, however, have visited some of the villages in Iraq that are subject to frequent suicide bombings. The events are equally horrid, but as Iraq is geographically further away, making it harder for such events to provoke an equally strong emotional response as an attack in Brussels.

The proximity principle explains why a terrorist attack in the U.S. would affect us more than an attack in Turkey. Proximity can also refer to cultural proximity where we perceive a certain culture to be closer to our own. This better equips us to relate to what has happened. An attack on a culture similar to ours makes the scenario that similar events could happen at home much more credible. We can rationally understand that attacks taking place in a faraway country could theoretically take place anywhere, but this hardly ever translates into an emotional response.

Due to this, it is, therefore, important that we keep the proximity principle in mind when we engage in public debate. It is unjustified to shame people who do not engage in public outrage every time a terrorist attack takes place in the world. This does not mean that people do not condemn it, or that they do not care on any level. It is merely that the proximity principle hinders people from relating to the events, a fact that must be respected.

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About John Lindberg 32 Articles
John Lindberg is a former policy adviser to Sir Jamie McGrigor MSP and a self-declared science geek. His main interests are energy and environmental issues, with a burning passion for nuclear power. He recently graduated with a First from the University of Glasgow, MA (Hons) in Politics.

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