“Compassion fatigue” is a powerful expression in the English language that, to my knowledge, has no translation in French. It refers to the feeling of weariness that overcomes supposedly charitable souls when they judge they have given too much to others without seeing many tangible results in return.
This phenomenon can be seen when Western populations (who are almost the only ones to be moved by catastrophes that occur far from their borders) are suddenly faced by simultaneous dramas such as a famine in Sudan, a hurricane in Haiti, and floods in Bangladesh. As a result, they are incapable of addressing all of these events at once and, feeling overwhelmed, turn in on themselves and stop giving anything to anyone. In a lot of ways, this is the situation we are currently in. For example, Africa has totally slipped out of our collective consciousness. Few are worried about South Sudan nowadays, despite having celebrated its independence seven years ago before the country sank into tribal conflicts and famines. What about the Congo? This part of the world has been ravaged by a civil war for the last 20 years, but we have left them to their fates. There is a certain amount of attention paid to Liberia, but that is because we fear the nation’s current Ebola epidemic will one day contaminate the West after being brought over from Africa in the same way as AIDS. And does anyone remember the Rohingyas? Their expulsion from Myanmar aroused great indignation a few weeks ago before we forgot all about them. And yet their situation is more atrocious than ever, with the population abandoned in an undefined zone between Myanmar and Bangladesh. But major humanitarian causes are not the only issues Westerners turn away from; human rights also now hardly inspire a reaction.
It just so happens that this week in China marks the anniversary of the army-led massacre of several thousands of students on Tiananmen Square in Beijing in June 1989. These men and women were protesting peacefully for a little more democracy and a little less corruption at the head of the Communist Party. The number of victims is still unknown, as most of the bodies were removed to avoid being counted and given a funeral. The world was shocked. In Paris on July 14, 1989, the parade for our national celebration was opened on the Champs-Elysées by students who had escaped from China. The Chinese symbol for “freedom” was painted on their bare chests. One generation later, and few people in our countries are outraged that Buddhists in China are condemned to death simply for being Buddhists, after which their organs are removed and sold. Who has spoken out for the freedom of Liu Xia, who has been imprisoned in Beijing for eight years, and whose only crime is being the widow of Liu Xiaobo, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, who died in prison last July? What is even more astounding is that Donald Trump is preparing to praise and distinguish the president of North Korea, the leader of the most repressive regime of our times with 120,000 political prisoners held while the rest of the population survives in a state of near-slavery imposed by the Communist Party.
There was a time not so long ago, from 1945 right up until recently, when the European and American governments along with public opinion set themselves apart from the world through their active promotion of human rights and democracy. Surely this was what distinguished the West? So, what has caused our sudden fatigue? There are several reasons. Whereas once we were universalists, we are now rather relativistic. As China, the Arab world, Russia, and vast swaths of Africa did not become liberal democracies as fast as we had hoped, some were quick to assume that these cultures and peoples were not compatible with freedom. This conclusion demonstrates a miscomprehension of said cultures, but this is what the world’s dictators want us to believe and they seem to be succeeding. Another similarly bad reason is that democratic values are currently contested in the West, even by political movements who favor communitarian, national, religious, and ethical values over liberal ones. This is known as populism, and it does not incite commiseration towards others. Instead, populism pushes us to return to a tribal state that existed before the philosophy of the Lumières and even before Christianity.
The Europeans and the Americans are also, whether rightly or wrongly, worried about the arrival of the world’s poor to their countries. However, we are forgetting the leading cause of their migration to our shores: to escape the tyranny that has gripped their homes. And these tyrannies are often funded by the West. This is why the West is “fatigued.” But is a tired, tribalized West betraying its own principles and universality still the West? I somehow doubt it.