I think we learn to be worldly from grappling with, rather than generalizing from, the ordinary.
The question that preoccupies me in the light of recent global violence is, Who counts as human? Whose lives count as lives? And, finally, What makes for a grievable life?
In a New York Times editorial piece published in May 2007 about the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Darfur, Nicholas Kristof lamented, not for the first time, that people “aren't moved by genocide.” “The human conscience just isn't pricked by mass suffering,” Kristof continues, and yet, as both anecdotal evidence and scientific research have repeatedly shown, “an individual child (or puppy) in distress causes our hearts to flutter.” He recounts a series of psychological and sociological experiments that have borne out what he calls “the limits of rationality,” including the fact that people who hear narratives or see images that “prime the emotions” by focusing on the plight of an individual suffering creature—say, a baby or “a soulful dog in peril”—respond more vigorously to that suffering than those who have had their “rational side” primed by performing math problems. Perhaps, Kristof proposes in disgust, what the Darfur situation needs in order to achieve the public recognition it deserves—let alone to effect actual change—is not statistics of mass genocide but a very photogenic, if appropriately sad-eyed, poster child, “a suffering puppy with big eyes and floppy ears.” “If President Bush and the global public alike are unmoved by the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of fellow humans,” he despairingly concludes, “maybe our last, best hope is that we can be galvanized by a puppy in distress.”