On the Unequal Distribution of Human Empathy: Some Bodies Need No Poetry

By Fatima Anwar

Artwork by @smishdesigns

In the past two days, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned that it is dignified and heroic to pick up arms to defend your homeland against occupation. I’ve learned that solidarity means boycott, divestment, sanctions, in addition to funding armed resistance. And I’ve learned it in that exact language, with no sense of irony. It turns out, you had the language all along. It turns out you can recognize occupation when it’s white. You can understand resistance when it’s white. You can feel the pain of exile when it’s white.

For so long we have fumbled in that space between self-evident horror and an unseeing, unhearing world. We have spent so much of our lives contorting and re-arranging the bodies of our dead so they may fit a framework legible to you. Only to learn a truth that we already knew deep in our bones.

The horror is self-evident, it needs no articulation. Some bodies need no framing. Some bodies need no poetry, no op-eds, no films, no literature, no “human stories”. Some bodies are just inherently human, worthy of collective grief, no questions asked. And yesterday, when I awoke to see Americans praise a Ukrainian suicide bomber (no, I’m not joking), I was struck by how boundless your empathy is. Because who knew you had this in you? Not us.

Look at your beautiful, boundless empathy. Look at the extension of your understanding to the limits of the human condition. What a sight to see what you were capable of comprehending all along. The importance of defending the homeland, the dignity of resistance, the pain of refugeehood. You’re such quick learners too, you learned it all overnight. You needed nothing. It was intuitive. Self-evident. You didn’t have to be taught to care.

And yet, when the last settler-colonial state bombs the largest open-air prison in the world, where over two million people are trapped on a strip of land barely 10km wide, we are forced into endless conversations about what? About homemade rockets. About whether or not a child throwing a rock at a tank counts as a terrorist.

Right now, you can share recipes for Molotov cocktails online and not a single person will blink an eye. Right now, you can send money to the Ukrainian resistance, to the Ukrainian army itself, and the FBI's and MI5s of the world will not come knocking at your door. Something bizarre is happening here. It’s like the world’s upside down and all the rules we were forced to abide by never even existed.

Or maybe it’s because the rules are different for us. Maybe it’s because, somehow, the world has been convinced that war and all the suffering that comes with it is something that’s natural to us. Unlike the “Europeans with blue eyes and blonde hair” suffering in Ukraine. After all, “this isn’t Afghanistan, this is a relatively civilized, relatively European city.” Who could deny that “these are not, obviously, refugees trying to get away from the Middle East…or North Africa. They look like any European family that you'd live next door to." Like any people worthy of our empathy and solidarity. Those are all quotes taken from commentators on some of the biggest international news outlets, the BBC, CBS and Al Jazeera. Real things people have said, openly and meaningfully.

I cannot believe you ever convinced us to mince our words for fear of alienating the oppressor. That resistance, by any means, was ever debatable.

Fuck that.

I don’t ever want to hear about rockets again. I am going to remember this moment. I am never going to explain this shit ever again. You never needed an explanation. So let it be what it is; the occupier and the occupied, the colonizers and the colonized, and within them, no need for a dialogue that is a farce; “a kind of conversation between the sword and the neck.”

I expected anger but instead, these past few days are filled with pain. Because no amount of fury seems to get through and I’m tired of recounting unthinkable human tragedy as a laundry list: Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Palestine, Kashmir and so on and so forth in a never-ending pile of Brown and Black bodies.

Even those who claim to be sympathetic refuse our full humanity. Only sympathetic if you make a spectacle of your pain. Only sympathetic if you die in stoic silence. Only sympathetic if you are a pure, uncomplaining victim worthy of their prayers. They refuse us the humanness of anger, the dignity of resistance, and, God forbid, the hope of liberation.

Maybe in a different world, this moment could just be about the ordinary lives upended by war in Ukraine. But it can’t be. I understand the aversion to comparing tragedies, I feel it in my own heart. But this tragedy has laid bare a larger tragedy - an ugly truth about global human suffering that must be acknowledged.

You say now is not the time. But when is? It’s never the time for us. This is the world you made, where our pain only matters by proxy.

This creation of a hierarchy of pain betrays a pitiful imagination of limited empathy. It also ignores that what we are talking about is happening right now. We are not shifting focus from something currently occurring to a retrospective in history - that limited and unequal distribution of human empathy happens as we speak. Because the bombs drop on all these places at the same time, and you only know of or care about one. That in of itself is the point.

The salt in the wound, the cherry on top, I think, has been seeing with our own eyes the swift and unequivocal condemnation of the injustice in Palestine, when people think those images are from Ukraine. Nothing I could write or say could be a clearer damnation of this hollow claim to a universal humanity.


About the author

Fatima Anwar is a lawyer, researcher, and writer from Pakistan. She has conducted extensive research on hate speech and extrajudicial violence in Pakistan. She was a writer for two groundbreaking animated shorts, Swipe and City of Smiles, that contend with the intersection of religious fascism and tech. She was the founding Editor in Chief of Hashiya, an Urdu language critical histories channel with a focus on colonialism, violent histories, and intergenerational trauma. Her work takes an interdisciplinary approach and focuses on anti-imperialist and creative indigenous rights discourse as a path to alternative human rights work in postcolonial states like Pakistan. She is currently a Human Rights Fellow at Columbia Law. She tweets at @khayalibiryani.

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