The “Mournability” of Death As It Pertains to Ethnicity or Nationality

There is no doubt that there is a hierarchy of mourning, which is especially influenced by the ethnicity and nationality of the people who have died. Some deaths seem more “mournable” than others, due to various factors such as media coverage, stereotypes of geographic regions and psychological factors that may impact how one may grieve different deaths. The familiarity a person has with the dead is a crucial factor in determining how “mournable” that death will be. This may explain why the lives lost in the Paris and Boston terrorist attacks were mourned more publicly and longer than the lives lost in Iraq or Palestine.

“A Palestinian child sitting on the remains of his family’s home.”

One way to look at how “mournable” a death may be to someone is to look at the process of grieving and what psychological factors impact how a person may grieve. Phenomenon such as “collapse of compassion”, “psychic numbing” and “disaster fatigue” are directly impacted by how the media portrays deaths.

One big psychological factor that not only impacts how the media covers deaths, but also how mournable a death is, is the phenomenon of the “collapse of compassion”. This term was coined by psychologist Paul Slovic and it refers to the tendency that humans have to turn away from mass tragedy. People are less sensitive to the death of a large group of people rather than the death of just one person; as the death toll rises people only see numbers, not the lives those numbers represent[1]. “Psychic numbing,” another term coined by psychologist Paul Slovic and it is quite similar to “collapse of compassion” as it is directly linked to collapse of compassion. The term “Psychic numbing” refers to the trend that shows that as the number of deaths increases, the “mournability,” or the value of those lives, decreases[2]. In order to further explain this phenomenon, Solvic uses the example of money. He says, “The difference between, say, $0 and $100 feels greater than the difference between $100 and $200. If you’re talking about $5,800 or $5,900 — [both] seem the same, even though it’s still $100 difference.” The opposite of psychic numbing is the singularity effect, which is when one life is valued and people will go to great lengths to protect that life. However, as the death toll increases this value of life is not proportional to the increase of lives lost[3]. Disaster fatigue is another phenomenon that can explain why people are “numb” to certain major crises. As more and more crises are reported in the media, such as various hurricanes, floods and famines, as each one is reported, people become desensitized to the severity and the lives lost in this disasters. This coping mechanism is called “disaster fatigue” and it is present because there is only so much tragedy humans can handle at once[4].

All these psychological factors, including collapse of compassion, disaster fatigue and psychic numbing have an impact on how some deaths are more mourned than others, as it pertains to the ethnicity of the people who died because of the way the media portrays deaths in non-Western societies. The deaths are reported in an impersonal way, people are reduced to numbers and very rarely are backstories given[5]. With this kind of coverage, people start to become “numb” to high death tolls and major crises.

 

“Funeral procession in the streets of Tehran following the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini.”

Directly corresponding with neurological aspects involved in mourning death, is its immediate impact on others. Although the cognitive aspect gives a general overview of the overarching effects and phenomenons that are relatable to many, the cultural aspect dives even deeper into the hierarchy of death. The primary reason some deaths are prioritized and seen as more influential than others is due to how the media portrays the deaths. The media is seen to affect how we understand, perceive, and manage death, both on an individual and collective level. Below is a conversation between two reporters, alluding to how deaths are prioritized on the news:

ANNE BARNARD: I think people here had the sense that there’s an impression that their lives don’t matter as much or their lives are expected to be part of some kind of faraway chaotic region where you just would expect things like this to be happening.

BILL KELLER: Well, there is a hierarchy of news. It’s a hierarchy of judgment, I guess. All deaths are equal to the victims and their families. But all deaths are not equal in the calculation of news value[6].

Broadcasted deaths also affect how we form social relations, and highlight how death is dealt with in private, public, and economic levels[7]. The more localized and televised the death is, the more likely it is to resonate with someone. William C. Adams, a professor attending George Washington University, questioned how news reporters reacted to natural disasters occurring within various countries. He determined the proximity of the countries to the United States impacted their mournability. Adams observed news coverages of 35 natural disasters between January 1972 and June 1985 that each took at least 300 lives, including cyclones, typhoons, hurricanes, and earthquakes. After tallying the minutes major television networks (NBC, ABC, and CBS) devoted to each, he found that the severity of the disaster did not individually predict the amount of coverage an incident received—more deaths did not necessarily translate to more airtime[8]. There is solid evidence that news outlets simply devote less time to covering or expanding on chosen events regardless of the amount of lives taken.

“Earthquake in Guatemala 1976”

Another notable factor used to determine which deaths are to be televised –and for how long– would be the desirability and attraction of the country. Countries that are more visited by American citizens receive more air time in the event of a tragedy. William C. Adams particularly mentions how an earthquake that occurred in Guatemala killed a total of around 4,000 people, yet had one third as much coverage as a similar earthquake that occurred in Italy, and killed a total of 1000 people[9]. This indicates that countries in desirable locations are given more media coverage. The “algorithm” that decides which deaths are to be broadcast is exemplified in the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the site of the bloodiest conflict since the Second World War. It is estimated that over five million people have perished here since the late 1990s, and yet these deaths have barely punctured public consciousness. Yet conflicts in the Balkans (dreadful on their own terms, but significantly less bloody) dominated headlines throughout the 1990s. It undoubtedly had much to do with the fact the victims there were Europeans, rather than Africans[10]. Because Europe is attractive to many Americans, the probability that deaths that occur in European countries are covered in the United States is more likely than those in Africa, a location comparatively few Americans visit for leisure. This variability in coverage indirectly prioritizes deaths in Europe over those in other countries, and establishes a hierarchy of death. This hierarchy of death belittles the deaths of others, which dehumanizes them and questions their worth. A current example of this dehumanization is the internment camps into which the Chinese government forces Muslims. These internment camps are meant to strip Muslims of their identity by cutting their hair, forcing them to eat pork, and forcing them to abandon their religion. (10) The little recognition and publicity given to those Muslims further dehumanizes and devalues them, which could force some to question their internal worth and reckon with the perception of their “disposability.” A lack of recognition in the news may lead Chinese Muslims to question where they lie on the hierarchy of death.

“Chinese internment camps for Uighur Muslims”

Similarly, the ethical implications of variable mourning are grim– to mourn some more than others is to acknowledge that some lives are worth more than others. Aside from the immediate discomfort many experiences when confronted with the possibility that some people are worth more than others, variability in mourning is inconsistent with a deontological moral framework. Deontology is a rules-based ethic popularized and conceived by Immanuel Kant that views action alone as morally determinate. It typically excludes circumstance and context; thus, when applying a deontological framework, one must condemn variable mournability as unethical[11].

Popular response to the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini further elucidates this claim. The Ayatollah’s image varied drastically depending on the nationality of the individual that heard of his demise; while Americans viewed the Ayatollah as a dangerous, fanatical autocrat, the majority of Iranians viewed his regime as beneficial on the whole, and embraced the extremism of his policies in part because they represented a rejection of the previous, Western colonial influence in Iran[12]. As a result, Americans responded with apathy or relief to the Ayatollah’s death, while Iranians flocked to the streets by the thousands to pay their respects to the dead leader[13].

This variability is due to the entirely coincidental circumstance of the potential mourners. The same coincidence may be extended to those on the opposite side of the equation: the dead. Philosopher Iris Young, in her book “The Myth of Merit,” asserts that meritocracy is an illusion. “Merit” is derived from factors out of the control of the meritorious such as a genetic predisposition to industry, intelligence, or physical strength, or the upbringing and society into which the meritorious was born[14]. Thus, the perceived merit that may seem to justify increased mourning for popular figures is illegitimate.

This is not to say that the only ethical course of action results in total equality of mourning and funeral rites, and is not to suggest states should enact policy changes to reflect this goal. This course of action allows for what is known as the “leveling down objection,” which contends that pure egalitarianism allows for the removal of all rights and benefits until everyone has nothing, but is equal[15]. The suggestion that variability of mourning is unethical does not condemn individuals, but rather suggests this is a problem with which multiple societies must examine and contend.

Variable mournability is a well-documented phenomenon that stems from a psychological inability to fully relate with those who are culturally and racially distinct. The phenomenon implicates Western society’s media and citizens alike, and is inconsistent with a deontological ethos. This research suggests that should the United States wish to legitimately pursue actions that are consistent with its alleged ideals of equality and humanism, particularly on a global scale, it must address variable mournability as a potential impediment to these goals.

 

Citations

[1] Seppala, Emma, Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Stephanie L. Brown, Monica C. Worline, C. Daryl Cameron, and James R. Doty. The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017.

[2] Slovic, Paul. “If I Look at the Mass I Will Never Act: Psychic Numbing and Genocide.” The International Library of Ethics, Law and Technology Emotions and Risky Technologies, 2010, 37-59. doi:10.1007/978-90-481-8647-1_3.

[3] Resnick, Brian. “A Psychologist Explains the Limits of Human Compassion.” Vox. September 05, 2017. Accessed April 08, 2019. https://www.vox.com/explainers/2017/7/19/15925506/psychic-numbing-paul-slovic-apathy.

[4] Michel-Kerjan, Erwann, and Erwann Michel-Kerjan. “The Collapse of Compassion.” HuffPost. May 25, 2011. Accessed April 08, 2019. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/pakistan-the-collapse-of-_b_751192.

[5] Conrad, Peter, and Valerie Leiter. The Sociology of Health & Illness: Critical Perspectives. New York, NY: Worth Publishers, 2013.

[6] Folkenflik, David. “Is There A Hierarchy Of The Importance Of Death In The News Business?” NPR. November 17, 2015. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://www.npr.org/2015/11/17/456317759/is-there-a-hierarchy-of-the-importance-of-death-in-the-news-business.

[7] Sumiala, Johanna, and Outi Hakola. 2013. “Introduction: Media and Death.” Thanatos 2 (2242–6280).http://thanatosjournal.files.wordpress.com/2012/12/sumialahakola_introduction_than222013.pdf.

[8] Urist, Jacoba. “Which Deaths Matter?” The Atlantic. September 29, 2014. Accessed April 09, 2019.https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/09/which-deaths-matter-media-statistics/380898/.

[9] Urist, Jacoba. “Which Deaths Matter?” The Atlantic. September 29, 2014. Accessed April 09, 2019.https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/09/which-deaths-matter-media-statistics/380898/.

[10] Owen Jones. “Our Shameful Hierarchy – Some Deaths Matter More than Others.” The Independent. May 15, 2013. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/our-shameful-hierarchy-some-deaths-matter-more-than-others-8581715.html

[11] Johnson, Robert, and Adam Cureton. “Kant’s Moral Philosophy.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. July 07, 2016. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-moral/

[12] The New York Times. “Iran’s Ruhollah Khomeini, a Man Who Shook the World.” The New York Times. June 03, 2016. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/cp/obituaries/archives/ruhollah-khomeini-iran

[13] Tyler, Patrick E. “THOUSANDS MOURN KHOMEINI.” The Washington Post. June 06, 1989. Accessed April 09, 2019.

[14] Young, Iris Marion. Inclusion and Democracy. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2010.

[15] Obrien, David. “Egalitarian Non Consequentialism and the Levelling down Objection.” Ratio32, no. 1 (2018): 74-83. doi:10.1111/rati.12199

7 Comments

  1. o I really appreciated the sentiment behind this topic since it is a prevailing issue that affects many people. The way we view deaths vary by nationality/ ethnicity and the media has a large role to play in it. In our post, we compared human lives versus animal lives and sometimes culture (nationality/ religion/ ethnicity) played a role in how we ranked deaths by diet. Some diets were more accepted by others because of their nationality (western). I have a question about one of the examples. For “Psychic Numbing”, Solvic uses the example of the greater effect of $0 to $100, and $5,800 to $5,900. To explain they’re both the same value but one is regarded higher. But I don’t think this example is that valid because it ignores the value already held in the money that is already presented at $0 to $100 its $100, but with $5,800 to $5,900 you already have the $5,800 already in value. Loved this post overall, very informative.

  2. This post opened my eyes to a lot of factors that I think we all are inherently are aware of but never confront directly. I really liked the ways in which the different psychological phenomena were characterized and explained through examples. It was rather disheartening to acknowledge the mass conflicts and genocides that occur around the world; yet, because there are more lives lost, it seems that the widespread deindividuation in the media causes the mournability factor to decrease significantly. This post will force me to further increase the skepticism with which I read information from mainstream news sources or media.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this post! Which might be strange to say, given its subject matter, but it was super interesting and well-researched, as well as extremely relevant to today’s world, unfortunately. The “collapse of compassion” hit really close to home for me. I heard about the tragedy in Sri Lanka on Sunday and was understandably sad, but not any sadder than I was about any other mass tragedy in the world today. I didn’t even cry; I just listened to the news on the radio until I got sick of it and then changed the channel. But when I talked to my friend that night, she was in tears because she knew someone who died that day in Sri Lanka, and then immediately I broke down in tears as well. I felt kind of awful, really, that I wasn’t sad until it impacted me or someone close to me, so I’m glad to know that there is a psychological term for this effect. It was also sobering to read about the disparity in coverage between events in Europe and events not in Europe, as Americans simply weren’t as interested. I think I will be using some of the sources in your bibliography to do more research into the subject matter myself!

  4. The problem of downplaying death is prevalent in everything, the news, textbooks, and even war documentaries. On top of this, both the issues of disaster fatigue and variable mournability are such a prevalent problem in today’s society. For example, everyone has heard about the Notre Dame catching on fire and people all around the world donating a billion dollars in an effort to rebuild it even though the cathedral already has the funds to rebuild. In contrast, the recent suicide bombing in Sri Lanka has garnered “condolences” and “prayers”. Not to judge anyone but seeing the response to Notre Dame vs. Sri Lanka have been prime examples of the prevalence of variable mournability throughout our society. I find it disheartening when news outlets headline their articles “Americans killed in the bombing in Sri Lanka” because they know that this society seems to care more for those few Americans than they do for the 300 death, Sri Lankans. Otherwise, I loved that the information was presented in digestible chunks rather than a solid wall of text, it made the information both easier to process and easier to connect to current events like this.

  5. I really enjoyed this post. It gave me a new perspective on how we as Americans react to deaths around the world versus how we react to deaths that take place within our own nation. I remember reading an article that briefly acknowledged this by discussing how three people died in the Boston Marathon terrorist attack and over thirty people died in attacks in Iraq on that same day, yet the Boston Attack received a lot more media coverage. You all do a good job of explaining some of the reasons why we may empathize and care about some nations of others.

  6. I enjoyed reading your post. I believe that it’s fair to say that social hierarchies inform many aspects of modern life. When a loss occurs, most families revere those related closest with the deceased person, creating a hierarchy of grief. Though this hierarchy can be interpreted in many ways, there are reasons for deferring to closest relatives when someone passes away.  Generally, people consider the grief of closest relatives to be the highest priority. This includes the spouse, children, parents, and siblings. However, I do believe that the hierarchy of grief shouldn’t be used to compare or evaluate grief. There’s no comparison when it comes to the loss of a love one and comparing your grief with another’s can actually become toxic.

  7. This post really highlights the divide between people who society see as “worthy” and those who society deems less worthy. This divide is definitely driven in part by the concept that those from more desirable places and standings should be grieved far more. While this concept is seen very commonly with individual deaths, it can also be explained through looking at widespread occurrences that may or may not have been covered in the media. One of the main examples I have seen in the past week is the difference of wealth allocation to the Notre Dame cathedral versus the Al Aqsa Mosque in Palestine. Even though this is one of the holiest sights for the Muslim religion, the fire burning at the mosque was not covered nearly as much by the media as the Notre Dame was. This is a clear example of how the hierarchy of grief is affected in large part by the ethnicity or race and location of people.

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