“Aww, I’m so sorry.”
I’ve heard this said to me a few times recently. Don’t worry: I haven’t lost any childhood pets, I haven’t endured a messy breakup and I’m not the latest victim of a burglary.
But I am Syrian.
And to my unpleasant surprise, this is often the exact response I get when I tell people. Don’t mistake my reaction for being unappreciative. I’m thankful for every ounce of sympathy that comes my way, from friends and strangers alike. I understand the underlying sentiment; it might come off as cold, if not inconsiderate, to ignore the fact that my status as a Syrian American means things have been tough for me recently (to say the least).
But there’s something so heartbreaking, so unsettlingly bizarre, about evoking sympathy from something that is an integral part of your identity. Substitute “Syrian” for any other adjective and the absurdity becomes clear. Imagine if the next time you introduced yourself as a Wolverine, you heard, “My thoughts and prayers are with you.”
Perhaps sympathy is something best expressed more subtly.
This small observation is part of a bigger theme: people often have the right intentions, but go about things in the wrong way. To me, the most significant example of this comes up after the introductions end and the conversation begins. There’s a tendency, especially in such a politically conscious campus as ours, to engage in political discussion with people who are directly affected by current events. After all, they’re nothing short of primary sources. But all too often, these discussions are prompted and guided by ideas that oversimplify an incredibly complicated situation.
The government you keep referring to as bloodthirsty and fascistic may be the only thing separating a family from living in a hellish Islamic dystopia. On the other hand, that terrorist group you’re reproaching may be another family’s last semblance of law and order in the face of complete anarchy. These nuances do not make for good headlines, but they are the harsh realities for many people who are personally affected by this conflict.
Author and physician Michael Crichton has coined the term “Gell Mann Amnesia” to describe something he believes is pervasive in our society. Simply put, we’re hyper aware of factual errors when a news source reports on something we know very well. But when the next, perhaps more obscure news story comes on, we tend to submit fully to its narrative, seeming to forget that these now-obscure stories could eventually become ones we’ll be able to fact-check later. I believe this phenomenon applies to oversimplifications as well. When the news reports on systemic racism in police departments, we know the reality is much more complicated than “all cops are racist.” Yet, when the same news outlet reports on foreign conflicts, we see only as far as the headlines let us.
I’ve been guilty of this myself. A couple of years ago, a Ukrainian family moved into our neighborhood. Whenever they were outside, I’d take the opportunity to chat them up, both in the interest of being a good neighbor and because I wanted to hear about the conflict right from the source. Since I knew they were from the eastern part of Ukraine, I tailored my remarks to be pro-Russian and peppered them with a hint of Euroscepticism.
Statistically, this was probably the right move. But that’s the point: Statistics are numbers, and people are people. Every individual has a unique experience — an experience that is undermined every time we cloud the conversation with generalities. Internet comments give enough room to flex our knowledge of global affairs. If our goal is to learn, we should make listening our priority.
That being said, engaging in a political conversation requires more than listening. And there are certainly political truths that individual circumstances cannot speak to. So, what’s really needed here is some respect and patience. Avoid making claims about anything you haven’t spent a good deal of time researching. If someone’s experience doesn’t match the political narrative you’ve heard, try to learn from them rather than speak over them. Don’t categorize anyone as “pro” or “anti”; to do so would betray the complexities of the situation. Be prepared to hear a lot less about politics and a lot more about people — aunts, uncles and cousins, rather than stats and figures. Because at the end of the day, that’s what matters the most.
A news story to you can be a life event for someone else. Remember to treat these situations with all the sensitivities they afford.
Farid Alsabeh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.