How stereotypes of Middle East can numb people’s compassion

How stereotypes of Middle East can numb people’s compassion

How stereotypes of Middle East can numb people’s compassion
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Bombs, instability, refugees and terrorism — these are the images of the Middle East that are often portrayed in the media. As these images remain dominant, whenever pictures circulate of people in the region in normal settings, safe from the trappings of the expected mayhem, the legitimacy of their suffering is almost questioned.
In 2021, an image of Palestinian children celebrating a birthday in their home, bombed to the ground by Israeli airstrikes, surprised many. Its unusual portrayal of the horrendous situation — and more so for how unaffected by the tragedy they seemed to be — left people in awe. Similarly, an image of Syrian men playing chess amid the rubble caused by Russian airstrikes two years prior made headlines for the unusual composure in times of great despair.
Today, more than 18 months since the Beirut blast, Lebanon continues to experience one of the world’s most severe crises since the mid-19th century. Yet, the world’s perception of the nation as resilient and the criticism it faced after mundane images were seen on social media have left many believing that the nation is too lazy to mobilize itself against its corrupt government. Reactions downplayed the severity of the situation, outlining that the people needed to get their act together to topple the “regime,” thinking the upcoming elections would simply solve the issue. This irritated the people, who had heard the term “resilient” for decades with no sign of change, despite many attempts to mobilize.
Meanwhile, as the Russian-led crisis in Ukraine unfolds, racist comparisons between Black, Syrian and Ukrainian refugees in the media have blatantly exposed the double standards that Black and Middle Eastern people are subjected to.
The use of distressing images to portray vulnerable groups and arouse compassion is not exclusive to the Middle East. It is a universal, powerful tool to trigger action, but it has also been criticized for stripping away the subjects’ dignity. Sensationalism is also a driving force for media platforms, charities and nongovernmental organizations. The particularity of the Middle East, however, lies in its continuous state of crisis and conflict, which has not only left its inhabitants feeling misunderstood but has also “normalized” tragedy in the Middle East.
As reasonable as it may sound to question the legitimacy of someone’s pain when seeing them smiling or to not blame the media for portraying the situation as it is, the lens through which Arabs have been viewed over the years has actually vilified them and failed to contextualize the situation, leaving them to their own devices. Endless wars have also been romanticized, leaving many to believe that the situation is normal. International actors, meanwhile, continue to use the situation to their own advantage — having deliberately contributed to it.

The lens through which Arabs have been viewed over the years has actually vilified them and failed to contextualize the situation.

Melanie Anne Cremona

As stories depend on power, the Western media has often mistaken Arab nationalism or defensiveness against Western forces for terrorism. In the eyes of many, Arabs have become terrorists and refugees a burden, with images portraying them in positive settings serving as proof that their pain is dismissible.
Media impartiality in times of injustice is also to blame for skewed perceptions of pain, which have overall worsened the situation. Siding with the oppressed has been associated with virtue signaling, failing to remember that narratives are often capitalized, gendered or radicalized, powered by biased financial contributions or readership demands and, in worst cases, propaganda. In fact, a majority of media outlets have been able to shape political opinions, reinforcing stereotypes and consequently racist and xenophobic policies, particularly when policymakers sought partisanship. The Western movie industry is also no stranger to shaping stereotypical narratives calling for white saviorism.
In return, when facing traumatic events, people tend to enter fight, flight or freeze mode. This can translate into unexpected reactions that allow the body to cope, sometimes using humor. Similarly, other coping mechanisms, reinforced by the world of social media, involve adopting hedonistic behaviors to regain a sense of dignity. Partying and laughing are merely coping mechanisms amid a dysfunctional situation and have, in return, harmed the subjects even more by making others question the legitimacy of their pain.
It remains understandable that portraying someone’s trauma is the most powerful and logical form of arousing compassion. However, this is where the media plays an important role in contextualizing things. The Arab’s “resilience” in tragic circumstances is a distinguishable trait of the region that has been fueled by the situations it has suffered from and, while it is unclear where the carpe diem mentality originated from specifically, one does not have to look further than the years of wars and hardships the countries have faced.
As perceptions stem from the media, it is through the images of Palestinians celebrating a birthday amid the rubble, Syrians playing chess under airstrikes or Lebanese celebrating love in times of despair that one must not romanticize such situations, but rather see dignity in their humanity. Although different perceptions may not be enough to arouse compassion, they acknowledge humanity, reminding the world that we are all one human race and that sometimes those who smile the most can also be the ones suffering the most.

  • Melanie Anne Cremona is a public policy consultant and Oxford graduate in public policy with seven years of professional experience in the social sector, including five years at the UN. Most recently, she worked at the Thomson Reuters Foundation as a project coordinator. Twitter: @melaniecremona_
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