A genuine gesture of empathy is never a bad thing. Acknowledging another person’s pain or suffering, offering emotional support, and proclaiming solidarity can be validating, empowering, and can have tremendous power to help people heal. However, when those gestures are only offered in the moment of crisis and are not followed up with sustained support or action they can start to ring hollow. Or worse yet seem disingenuous or placating warping an intention to offer emotional support and comfort into something which further wounds instead.
When we are personally faced with a trauma or crisis there are several stages to dealing with it. There is the initial moment of crisis itself followed by the emotional and psychological impact of the trauma or loss. Then comes the repairing and recovering from the consequences or loss as well as the process of emotional and psychological healing both of which can wind up being life-long and never truly completed.
Expressions and displays of empathy, support, and solidarity can be immensely helpful in those initial moments of crisis and impact, and can indeed help empower the beginnings of the recovery process in invaluable ways.
And thanks to our digitally interconnected world we are now able to be aware of events and crises happening all around the globe. Social media platforms provide access to world-wide information and can also offer us a method of offering those initial gestures of empathy over vast distances and on an unprecedented scale.
Within a couple of hours there can be literally millions of posts expressing acknowledgment and support which at an immediate emotional level can be incredibly powerful. There can also be sudden storms of hateful and abusive posts by the millions but that is another topic for another time.
Graphics, slogans, hash-tags, photos, and altered profile pictures shared and re-shared can sweep with awe inspiring speed through all the forms of virtual space expressing acknowledgement and empathy in the face of a crisis or catastrophe. These initial swells of support can take more active and material forms as well. Personal donations, fund raising campaigns, benefit concerts, charitable challenges, these sorts of immediate reaction can have pragmatic impacts above and beyond the emotional ones.
The trouble comes when the situation passes the initial shock and reaction stage and moves into the slower moving repair and recovery stages. As potent as ‘Thoughts & Prayers’ style outpourings can be in the earliest stages they prove far less effective, and all too often useless, in the longer term.
Let’s use a couple of large scale examples, hurricane Maria striking Puerto Rico in 2017 and the massive 7.3 earth quake which hit Haiti in 2010. Both caused horrendous amounts of destruction and affected millions of lives.
In both cases there was instant and large scale response to the crisis. There were international expressions of solidarity, donations, fund raising events, and mainstream media kept the eyes of the world fixed on the situation. Those immediate outpourings of support both emotional and practical were of invaluable help and were received with vocal and heartfelt gratitude from both the support organizations and the people directly affected and in need.
The problem arises once those initial moments pass. For those far away from the crisis the wheels of life continue to turn drawing their attention in other directions and with the urgency of sudden crisis relaxing the mainstream media does the same. Not because we no longer care or no longer feel those people are worth caring about but because we feel we have cared. The crisis happened, we responded, it appeared to have a beneficial impact and was appreciated thus we feel the arc has completed.
Ask any charitable support organization and they will tell you as immeasurably grateful as they are for those first-wave outpourings of support the hardest part of their work is attempting to buttress and seek ongoing support. Trying to get all those people who generously donated out of genuine desire to help to then contribute again a year later, two years later, five, ten…
Recovery and rebuilding after a large scale natural disaster is a process which, just at the practical construction level, takes many years to complete. That first surge of emotional and financial support is overwhelmingly appreciated and very definitely saves lives but it doesn’t provide enough to sustain through all the years and work to come. Thus people in those support organizations wind up with a love-hate relationship with those initial responses. They unquestionably open the floodgates of desperately needed support and resources but the ‘I saw, I responded, I cared, I helped’ mechanism which drives them also closes those floodgates just as swiftly.
Where that pattern really shows its self-defeating colors is in the face of a recurring trauma or crisis. Neither Puerto Rico nor Haiti were hit again and again year after year or multiple times within the same year by the same disaster. But take something like the ongoing struggle with mass shootings in the US or, more topically, the pervasive and persistent instances of racial discrimination and abuse.
Each time a horrific incident occurs there is a surge of expressed empathy and support, setting aside the counter reactions from those with ideologies which support the imbalances enabling such incidents to occur. The graphics, slogans, hashtags, altered profile pictures, and statements of solidarity from both members of the public as well as from corporate and political leadership sweep through all forms of media having those valuable impacts in those agonizing initial moments. And then the ‘I saw, I responded, I cared, I helped’ machine churns through its cycle and the wheels start to roll in other directions.
But then another similar, if not often even more horrific, incident occurs and the next surge of emotional response starts to hit a few snags. The more it continues to happen, both an emotional exhaustion and a numbing effect start to muffle and deflate the urge to respond. Coupled with that an exhaustion born of frustration develops because the help which was supposed to fix the problem doesn’t seem to be doing what it’s supposed to.
And as opposed to the love-hate feelings of the support organizations over trying to extend short term bursts of aide into long-term support, those affected by these kinds of recurring disasters shift from appreciating the expressions of support to resenting them which has led to the phrase ‘Thoughts & Prayers’ now being generally viewed with disdain. Not necessarily because they doubt the intentions behind them but because the gestures haven’t done anything to prevent incidents from happening again.
Genuine intentions do not automatically guarantee meaningful impacts, and to victims of recurring abuses offering hope and then not following through or delivering on it can feel worse than never offering hope at all in the first place.
It is also important to note that the ‘call-out culture’ which is such a potent force in our online world winds up eliciting a fair amount of rather performative expressions of support offered in an effort to avoid being targeted for not participating. At first they may seem genuine but it doesn’t take much focused scrutiny to spot the somewhat pro-forma nature of them and especially for those suffering from these kinds of repeating abuses the disingenuous tone completely destroys any meager benefit.
There is a very marked and encouraging difference, however, in the tone of the responses and exchanges which have erupted in the wake of the killing of George Floyd for which I would point to three main factors.
One, the kids from Parkland Florida doing such an incredible job of refusing the let the ‘I saw, I responded, I cared, I helped’ cycle simply roll on as normal and instead very effectively calling it on the carpet for the self-sustaining dysfunction it is.
Two, the global existential threat of the pandemic giving everyone’s sense of perspective and habitual normalcy a massive shake.
And three, the specific incident surrounding George Floyd’s death being such a perfect microcosm of the overall toxic dysfunction which has given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement in the first place.
George Floyd was not being detained because he matched a description of who committed some other serious and violent offense. They were there for him specifically for a very minor issue. The response and level of detainment was vastly out of proportion for suspicion of possibly making use of a forged twenty dollar bill. He was not violently resisting thus seeming to require multiple officers to subdue him, he was prostrate and cuffed and immobile. The excessive technique which lead to his death was clearly visible and clearly unnecessary. The excessive force was done at the hands of a white officer with multiple grievances in his record and with a violent history which was not properly vetted when he applied to join law enforcement. Three other officers stood by, in clear line of sight, and allowed the assault to occur. And the entire incident occurred in full view of dozens of witnesses and was filmed from start to finish clearly and completely.
You could not have designed something more impossible to look away from if you tried, from any ideological perspective.
The immediate rage in response to his death was fully understandable and entirely justified. The gift this ‘impossible to look away from’ situation brought into the mix was that it hobbled the typical counter reactions. The usual dismissive attempts to deny or redirect that anger had nowhere near the normal level of conviction. The situation was just too clearly wrong and whereas the general public response typically stopped at seeing the rage as understandable it now couldn’t help but see it as justified.
That wavering in the counter responses, and in the reflexively performative gestures, offered a genuinely hopeful sign that people were actually seeing and more importantly actually listening. Rather than swatting the gestures aside in frustration or tearing them down as performative those raising their fists in protest felt able to offer guidance on how to make the gestures more truly meaningful to ears which would truly hear them.
The general public seemed to finally be genuinely asking ‘how can I actually help?’ and so those engaging in justified protest began to say ‘here, this is how you can truly help’.
Rather than attack the clumsy attempt to show solidarity by posting black squares with the Black Lives Matter hashtag as a hypocritical campaign to silence them, because it wound up swamping twitter feeds with near endless streams of black squares, the response was one of patient redirection. ‘Thanks for the thought, just use a different hashtag so it doesn’t clog up the channels we need to keep important information flowing’.
We are a long way from correcting the distortions and dysfunctions created by unchecked racial bias and hatred which has resulted in such a tragic history of horrific abuses being suffered by Black people at the hands of law enforcement, never mind those same distortions entrenched in global level political and economic systems.
But the one lesson we do seem to be learning is about the ‘Thoughts & Prayers’ reflex and how best to make use of it.
The initial impulse to express empathy and offer support is a good and deeply valuable thing. The immediate impacts it can have are powerful and important it just has a tendency to flare and fade creating its own self-defeating cycle.
We seem to be collectively figuring out a way to harness that impulse and redirect it into approaches which can produce lasting and meaningful benefit. Rather than destroy it or toss it aside we are helping one another figure out a way to aim it at not simply putting a band aide on the surface but at working to cure the underlying cause.
The moral of the lesson : send your thoughts and prayers, just send them with a plan of action so they know how to measurably and sustainably help the underlying problem.