On Comparing Tragedies and Responsibilities I

“Don’t worry, christianity harmed and killed just as much people and destroyed properties. Or maybe more?”

“That’s nothing. Christians can do twice as much in half the time. next time, call a marine.”

“Why don’t you mention what the Christians are doing?”

These are some of the comments that a post on The Paleolibrarian Page on FB, regarding the recent attack by the Islamist organisation Boko Haram in Bama, Nigeria, had attracted. These comments made me think about two things.

a. How justified are we in comparing tragedies?


b. Is the responsibility collective in cases of such deadly sectarian violence? How de we know?

In the case of (a) I would first like to assert that there are two kinds of comparisons: one that compares the gravity of each tragedy and the other with an intention to bring in some commonality in human suffering and make one tragedy a part of a collective human tragedy.

The first kind of comparison is more disconcerting to me as I find it to be an exercise in dehumanising of the victims of a tragedy. When one compares tragedies and crimes (especially crimes against humanity) it almost always is with an underlying intent to trivialise the suffering of the victims, and includes overtones of victim blaming and a self-defeating whataboutery and buck passing. This comparing of tragedies is very common in India and those of us taking a stand for secularism and justice, are more often than not faced with such horrendous questions as “What about 1984?” or “What about the Kashmiri Pandits?” or “What about the hungry children?” (this one was specifically asked to me by many different people, whenever I brought up Section 377 after the Supreme Court verdict). The comments on FB quoted above are very similar to such “what about” questions. The difference, is that a “what about” question is bigotry under the pretense of humanitarian concerns, while the quotes are assertions (possibly stemming from an urge for political correctness or misplaced priorities). Comparisons and pitting of tragedies and crimes against one another does nothing but justify violence, yet people resort to such hypocrisy. Why?

Mind that such comparisons do not come from the victims or even objective observers, but from people with specific political ideals to follow and cases to make. Those people who want a clean conscience even if they make an irrational argument. Take the hungry children question, for instance. It was first thrown at me by a pro-Modi and pro-BJP atheist. His contention was that there are more important things to worry about, than LGBT rights. And hence I should worry more about the poor and “hungry children”.

Nevermind the fact that he was dictating me on what to and what not to worry about, his entire argument ignored the possibility that there might be gay or genderqueer children that are poor and hungry as well. The reason I feel why he maintained his stand was possibly because of the then recent decision of his favourite party to remain homophobic.

Comparing tragedies involve a whole lot of omissions. Comparing criminalised sexuality with malnutrition takes a whole of lot of bigotry and privilege blindness, and a deliberate disconnect from reality, and it is the same for every other comparisons.


  1. says

    The only difference between christian atrocities and muslims atrocities is when they happen and what weapons they use to do it. If the crusaders had possessed nuclear weapons a thousand years ago, they would have used them on Saladin’s citadel.

    The christian crimes happened in the past, so nothing can undo them. But the muslim crimes are happening now and continue to happen. The muslim apologists are pointing fingers at other religions because they want atrocities to continue. The christian leaders did the same centuries ago, pointing fingers at muslims to justify their own actions.

    All religions are equally capable of atrocity (see: the organized murders of muslims in 2013 and 2014 by Burma’s buddhists).

  2. says

    When two instances of human suffering are made part of the same conversation, it may be to malicious or benign ends, depending largely on whether this juxtaposition is used to (wantonly or unwittingly) detract or distract from the suffering at hand, or to show how any other suffering one can recall from experience pales into insignificance next to the witnessed suffering.

    An egregious instance of a derailing comparison, where manual scavenging is compared to graduate students disinfecting lab equipment, is called out here . In the context of personal tragedies, NYT columnist David Brooks advises here : “Don’t compare, ever!”

    An instance where a juxtaposition of sufferings is used not to distract from but to highlight an issue, can be found here where the author’s boyhood experience of street harassment is acknowledged at the very outset as something that cannot compare in severity to street harassment faced by women. It is compassion rather than comparison, or commiseration rather than commensuration, that is the intent of the juxtaposition of experiences here. Searching one’s own personal history for a situation that comes closest to the witnessed suffering, can be an aid to compassion so long as it doesn’t lapse into self-centered autobiography and can be an aid to outrospection to the extent of helping one step out of oneself even if one isn’t entirely able to put oneself in the other’s place.

    David Brooks’ is good advice considering how our primate brains, prone to the cognitive bias of relativity , may not easily be able to juxtapose without comparing. Juxtaposition for compassion instead of comparison is also the motivation behind the exercise of joint family-portrait(s) suggested in this article .

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