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1 Victim, 2 Victims, 3…When do we stop caring?

i-ACT’s Gabriel Stuaring, James Thacher and the Little Ripples team are in eastern Chad documenting the stories of Darfuri refugees and opening the first Little Ripples’ center. This trip, i-ACT #16, coincides with the 10th anniversary of the start of the genocide in Darfur and the more recent influx of 300,000 new refugees into the region.

I’ve been rereading a presentation, The More Who Die, the Less We Care, by Professor Paul Slovic, about what he calls “Psychic Numbing,” our inability to respond to violence and suffering that is massive in scale. It goes against our nature. We have evolved over millions of years to care about protecting the individuals that are right next to us, the ones that promote our own survival and the survival of our genes. Of course, the world has changed just a bit from when our ancestors lived in caves or in the plains.

Slovic presents studies and experiments that show how, as soon as the number of victims or individuals that need help rises from one to two, people’s willingness to participate drops. As the number increases from two to more and then up to larger and larger groups, we become numb and paralyzed. We fail to act at all. We see value in saving the individual but not the masses.

If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at one, I will. Mother Teresa
Guisma. Photo: i-ACT/Gabriel Stauring

Guisma. Photo: i-ACT/Gabriel Stauring

When I first started hearing about Darfur in 2004, I felt that paralysis. On the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, I felt guilty that I had done nothing when 800,000 had been slaughter in 100 days. I was now feeling powerless and overwhelmed by what I was reading about Darfur, suffering and destruction in a mass scale. It did make me feel numb! My first strategy to combat this was to focus on what I could do and not on all the things I could not. I was not going to stop the horrific violence happening on the other side of the world, but I would find a way to make it personal, first to myself, then to others around me, and then hopefully to more.

I connected with others, and we decided that we needed to put a face on the numbers. We bought some cameras and came out, naively thinking that it would be one trip to the camps. Fifteen trips after that first one, we are still coming out to build relationships across continents.

Indifference, to me, is the epitome of evil. Elie Wiesel

Sadly, as Slovic shows, indifference is actually the epitome of our nature. It becomes evil when we are able to intellectually recognize this and still fail to act—as individuals, as institutions, and as nations. We know that behind those mind-numbing large numbers of killed and displaced are real, unique individuals that are just like us. We must fight our nature and create the means through which we respond at every level as if each and eve one of those individuals in danger is the one we care about, as if they were right next to us.


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