People Are Suffering Around The World And I Do Not Really Care…Neither Do Most Of You

It was a lazy summer Wednesday afternoon so I decided to do something I do not often these days -catch a movie at the local theater.  Today when I now go to the movies, I want to see something “easy” and relatively mindless -meaning no complicated plot lines and low-context stories that require my complete attention and demand I stay awake. I prefer movies with simple story lines and very interesting characters -think Big Lebowski meets The Truman Show meets The Poseidon Adventure meets anything Steve Buscemi. My real life has enough drama and complicated story lines -no need to go to the movies for more of that. On this particular day I decided to take in “San Andreas” and appreciate the eye candy of watching my state shake to shit…in 3D.


As I watched the movie something occurred to me that I often get in a lot of trouble for saying, hence the title of this blog. As I watched Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson fight and struggle to save his family from death, I noticed he did something that most of would do if in that same situation -he watched people dying left and right, people he could have helped, in order to save, specifically, his wife and daughter. In other words, he would rather watch 100’s of people die in order to save 2, because those 2 are his own family.  Theoretically, if someone informed you that 10 strangers are going to die unless you agree to lose 1 very much loved one, most of us would probably choose to kill off 10 strangers in order to save our 1 beloved.

Why are we humans wired this way? Why would we, generally, and again, theoretically, work feverishly to protect our beloved selected few at the possible expense of losing many? Thank the universe most of us are never handed that choice and I am relatively certain how most of us would respond.

We could make the genetic slash DNA argument that we are all hardwired to protect our small tribe -be it children, parents, siblings- first and foremost.  Thus it is pure instinct and, bottom line, we are animals acting upon what our reptilian brains dictate.

Several years ago a student, Lou, introduced me to a concept he referred to as the “monkeysphere” -which I later found out to be more formally termed, “Dunbar’s Number.” If I were to risk huge oversimplification of this fascinating theory it would go something like this: All primates are only capable of caring and having social relationships with only a certain number of other primates depending on the size of their brain. Thus, from the size of an animal’s neocortex, the frontal lobe in particular, you could theoretically predict the group size for that animal.

If we were to buy into Robin Dunbar’s theory, the human being is capable of having approximately 150 casual friendships, 50 close friendships, 15 intimate relationships -for example, you could turn to these people in times of sorrow- and, finally, 5 ultra intimate relationships, meaning good friends and/or family members. These numbers are only averages and there is huge range among people, depending on personality type, etc.. In addition, social media is definitely playing a role in reshaping these numbers somewhat -though I think you get the idea here -as human beings we are only capable of only so much REAL empathy and social reciprocity towards others.

So I will take this understanding and stray from it just a bit yet still abide by its logic -our brains are simply not capable of truly caring for everyone on the planet experiencing suffering of some variety. I believe if we could do so we literally would go crazy. Yes, literally. Reality can be such a bitch that we must shut off part of our brain in order to not experience it in totality. So if I see a report of a tsunami in Japan, should I, or better yet even, CAN I, truly care?

Some recent brain science suggests that our brain functions quite differently when dealing with 3 distinctly different groups of people. First off, our brain handles interaction with real people with high personal relevance to us quite differently from, second, real people who have no personal relevance to us (think famous people) and, third, fictional characters -my hunch is this is part of our necessary survival process. So, let’s say one is watching a fictitious movie of a young child choking, a news report of a famous person’s young child choking, or one experiences their own young child choking (even if it were on film) our brain reactions would be highly different. Imagine if we witnessed hundreds of people dying in the aforementioned tsunami and we felt the same sense of care and empathy as if each of these people were in our ultra-intimate circle? Again, if we did, we would absolutely go out of our minds.

Now, here is what I am NOT suggesting. I am not suggesting that people cannot react to global tragedies and act with benevolence…of course they can and many do. Whether it is a tsunami in Japan, a hurricane in New Orleans, or an earthquake in Nepal we have seen people (think “Doctors Without Borders”) act lovingly and altruistically on such occasions. However, I would argue that these tragedies are simply the Disaster Du Jour, induced by a selective media that only plays the most viewable disasters for ratings, the ones that strike the most fear into our psyche, while making it feel hip to get on the bandwagon of support and fulfill our social need to belong.

Sound cynical?

Consider that if we felt real empathy for those suffering we would not have to wait for a Disaster Du Jour, that plays like great theater, in order to practice such empathy -there are plenty of more boring tragedies to go around that do get much media hype.

  • More than two-thirds (70%) of all people living with HIV, 24.7 million, live in sub-Saharan Africa—including 91% of the world’s HIV-positive children. In 2013, an estimated 1.5 million people in the region became newly infected.
  • Between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the U.S. each year. Human trafficking is the third largest international crime industry (behind illegal drugs and arms trafficking). It reportedly generates a profit of $32 billion every year.
  • In 2014 alone, 5 million people were treated around the world for malnutrition and illness including:
    • 2,718,401 people in Nigeria
    • 104,117 people in Democratic Republic of Congo
    • 93,043 people in South Sudan

Shall I go on? Cause this is only the beginning.

Of course most of us fall for the proverbial hook, line and sinker for tragedies that news directors would like us to support (when I used to pastor I would plead with people not to let news directors dictate their prayer lists…that went over really well…now I write blogs…but I digress). I would argue that if we practiced REAL caring, TRUE empathy, and REAL concern we would not have to wait to do something until we watch Disaster Du Jour on TV and gasp in horror. Do we really care OR do we feel a sense of wanting in on the collective story in some way, shape or form, and, in a strange way, feel a bit better about ourselves in return? In the same way it so much more difficult to truly love one person than it is to “love” thousands, it is far easier to “care” about a tragedy in Nepal than to truly be a good and loving companion to your closest loved ones.

But Jimmy, just because I cannot truly love and be concerned for these people to the degree I would a close loved one, this does not mean I cannot care and empathize to a lesser degree and do what I can to help.”

Thank you omniscient arguer.

Perhaps we could have a semantics argument over the words care and empathize, yet I do contend we have been conditioned to view nearly all image-based news as a mild form of entertainment, even in spite of the fact it could provide us a twinge of what feels like concern and empathy.

I am often criticized when I say when we watch these natural disasters unfold we are being entertained…not in a humorous, “ha ha” kind of way, rather in a a theater of the macabre sense. We are watching others misfortune unfold half way around the globe and the tugs at our heartstrings are generated by those suffering who are well outside our monkeysphere slash Dunbar’s Number. Certainly none of us WANT others to suffer, yet we strangely do not mind being entertained by others misfortune, rationalized and condoned in the name of what feels like empathy. We gasp and shriek that this is horrible…yet we watch and watch and watch. Contemporary media has created a generation of eavesdroppers in the name of news.

If we want to practice true humanitarianism, perhaps we should not send a check to some organization in god-knows-where, China (Buttfuck, Egypt?). What if true humanitarianism was defined as being loving, kind, giving and compassionate to all those within your Dunbar number, to the people we can truly make a difference in their lives? Perhaps the world would be be a much more caring and empathic place.

I have heard the term, “Think locally, Act globally.” I would argue we must act locally first and foremost.

But perhaps I overthink.

Maybe I just should have watched JurassicWorld instead. I heard it’s pretty good.




  1. I’m still astounded whenever I read about Dunbar’s number. I think it’s such a complex-yet-simple topic that a lot of people (including myself) have trouble accepting.

    It’s within our nature to have a third-person bias, or to see ourselves as counter to the norm, that we often don’t understand ourselves.

    I still remember one of the first times I sat in your class and you asked the room at large if we considered ourselves to be open-minded. Every person in the room professed that they were open-minded. But when you asked if we considered others to be as open-minded as ourselves, we all said no.

    It’s incredible that we don’t see others as people and I think that’s an important acknowledgment before we can begin to really help others.

    I believe altruism can be selfless once we can empathize with someone whom we have nothing to gain from. It begins when we treat others as we treat anyone else, regardless of our relationships. I visited Dunbar’s research again in an essay I wrote for my Comm. Ethics class. I’d love to dig it up and share it with you sometime.

    I really enjoyed your sentiment about “Think locally…” and applying it where it is relevant. I think it’s important for us to set the standards for the change we wish to see (e.g. Be the change you wish to see in the world).

    One of my favorite posts!

    • Thank you Lou. And thank you for introducing the concept of Dunbar’s Number to me a few years ago. I really did not mean to come off “preachy” at the end…the real motivation for this blog is very “Postman-esque” as we have draped the veil of entertainment over all things important in our culture that even when we THINK we are feeling empathy we are not…we are being entertained. When I watch the images of the tsunami roll over Japan, I was being entertained, plain and simple. It was a very cool thing to watch. But before you judge me, if I were captain of the universe would I want that to happen so I can be entertained? Of course not. Was there anything I could do about it? Nope. Do I want people to die so I can be entertained? Nope. I would argue that I COULD not possibly be anything but entertained while watching this. Our news is a creepy voyeur-esque activity in which I question its ethics.

  2. Just a note regarding the news media and their coverage. I am sitting here on the Texas Gulf Coast. There is a “disturbance” offshore which should come ashore between this evening and tomorrow evening. This is obviously going to be a “rain event” The local (Houston) media is playing it up big on the rain issue since we are just now recovering from flooding from rainstorms over the past month. The national media is talking about the “devastating storm” brewing in the Gulf which will flood Houston. The thing does not even have circulation and is not a named storm but the media is already talking about it getting that circulation before landfall and being named “Bill” , THE FIRST STORM OF THE SEASON IN THE GULF. And, I am sure folks all over the USA are watching excitedly to see how much damage it will do, — despite the fact that the East Coast is getting wacked continuously with REALLY BAD WEATHER this early summer.

  3. But how do we help? I think we always oversimplify problems like poverty and war. How can help the poor when the banks and corporations are bleeding us all dry? While people consume massive amounts of resources, and vote for incompitent leaders? Need I go on? Sure I can volenteer, give money, love, compassion and all that good stuff–but those seem like their just little band aids where we need major surgery. I respect those who travel the world helping the unfortunate, but couldn’t we go so much deeper into the roots of the problems. What do you think Jimmy? Too pessimistic?

  4. Ehhhh, on one hand yes, on the other hand no.

    I do agree with you point that the majority of media coverage on any given global topic is mainly done for ratings(as is just about everything on television, international or domestic), but I do belive it is a stretch to say that people are suffering and the majority of people, yourself included, do not care about it.

    As for Dunbar’s number, I offer this.

    We tend to think of the people closest to us as the most pertinent. We also attune ourselves to matters that affect us directly, such as “Is there traffic on the freeway I will be taking to work today”, or “I wonder if the assignment will be due today in my class.” World matters and to some extent some domestic ones as well are irrelevant to most people…or so they think. They are simply unaware of the connection these events have to their own lives. Conflict in the Middle East? Higher gas prices at the pump, and increased costs for a majority of goods produced from petroleum. Tsunami in Asia? Impacted production of a variety of goods and services. Questionable food production laws passed by the big wigs in Washington? GMOs and other goods with unknown effects circulating in our food systems. Every ripple in the water has the potential to become a wave somewhere else. We all affect one another, whether we are aware of it or not.

    We as humans make things pertinent as we see fit, and as such have the capability to discern what global and domestic matters we care about and act on.

    I am not a fan of insects, and never thought in my entire life I would care so much about what the honeybee is up these days until I learned how integral their success is in our food system, and how they are deteriorating rapidly due to human causes.

    Going even further than the mere economical value caring for someone or something may bring, being empathetic is hard-wired in our brains.

    I recall you talking shortly about mirror neurons in the class one day, and this concept plays heavily into the science of compassion.

    When we experience certain things, certain areas of our brains are engaged. When we see others going through that same experience, some of those same areas, though not all and not as strongly, engage as well. Pain when someone is hit, a sour face when we see others eating sour things…these are all mirror neurons right?

    Emotions seem to obey a very similar rule. When someone is disgusted, we may feel that same disgust. Ever hear laughter is contagious or your attitude is bringing everyone else down? When we see others emotions, our own brains activate those same emotions. We feel, to an extent, what others feel. Your daughter’s joy at a graduation elicits the same joy in yourself, not singularly because of proximity and relevance, but these mirror neurons activating as well. You may(ok, maybe not you specifically) feel that same emotion looking at the graduating class of Topeka Kansas High School, although probably not as strongly. Mirror neurons in a sense, make us sensitive. Talk about empathizing.

    These shared circuits have historically helped us survive, as all knowledge is the result of information learned and taught endlessly along generations. To build a spear for example, our mirror neurons have to be able to effectively tell the parts of your body to imitate motions and emotions correctly.

    Sensitivity, caring, and motivation are all different concepts however, and the human body is not held to a be heartfelt, altruistic mechanism at all times in all situations. We put ourselves above others, hurt people both far and close to us, and ignore the suffering and emotions of others every day. Partially due to self-preservation, whether instinctually or through concious action, or for other reasons such as distance, relevancy, and mental capacity at the time.

    We are not determined(to a certain finite extent), nor are we limited by our biology.

    Perhaps your issue is not so much with the message and whether or not your decoding of it matches the majority of your society’s expected reactions, but rather the medium of the message and the how the senders and channels presume you will react…and in turn give them ratings and/or donations.

    I know I am much more receptive to global news when it is presented on an credible, “independent” video meduim or presented in a print format with accompanying pictures from a trusted source. I am much more likely to give to The Young Turks than I would to CNN anyday, and this preference affects how I allow myself to be affected by new information.

    Remember Jimmy, the medium IS the message.

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