This is Part 3 in my series on Familiarity. View previous entries here.
A few weeks ago, when the whole Phil Robertson thing blew up, one writer brought up the fact that we were more concerned about the star of Duck Dynasty than the 500 people that were killed in Sudan the day before. And the reality is, most of us were. But why?
Think back to a year ago, when a shooting at a Connecticut elementary school flooded our TV screens. It was all we talked about for a few weeks. But, a few days before the Phil Robertson scandal, the one-year anniversary of Newtown passed with little fanfare. We remember … but then we forget.
Why am I bringing up these random scenes? Because I believe that they tell us something about familiarity.
The Sudan crisis doesn’t hit home because few of us have ever been to Sudan, or anywhere close. The terrible acts of violence that take place overseas are almost a foreign concept to us, regardless of whether we live in the violent inner city, or the safe confines of suburbia. Because we have no grid for what is going on in Sudan—regardless of whether or not we’re informed about it—the headline about the death of 500 innocent people registers as little more than a number.
Which brings us to Newtown. The people that were killed there were just as innocent and helpless, and the death toll was far less. Yet, this tragedy hits home on a level that the Sudan tragedy simply does not. Why is that? Are not both events equally horrific?
I’ve never been to Connecticut, but I am a little more familiar with it than I am Sudan. And the reason why the nightmare in New England hits home, even in the South and Midwest, is because it reminds us that we are not as safe as we think we are. The tragedies that happen overseas can and do happen here.
I’m not trying to rank tragedies. They’re all terrible, regardless of the death tolls. But, the reality is, we care about some more than others, not necessarily because we’re heartless and only care about America (though that is sometimes the case), but because we’re not familiar with anything else.
So why do we get as riled up about Phil Robertson as we do Newtown? Aren’t those two things in entirely different categories? Not necessarily—remember, we’re talking about familiarity here.
Newtown hung in our minds for weeks after it happened, but it was a distant memory by the one-year mark. But not for the families that were involved. I have no idea where they’re at right now, but I’m sure the tragedy still keeps them up at night. It’s easier for us to forget, because no one we know personally was involved.
This brings us to the Duck Dynasty situation. Shouldn’t it be the same as Newtown? No one we know personally was involved. The only problem is, we don’t think of it this way. We’ve watched the show long enough that we actually think the Robertson’s are our real-life friends. We’ve viewed a very select portion of their lives, and have somehow gotten to the point where we think we know them intimately, like the friends we share our souls with over coffee.
Though we are often unaware of it, familiarity plays a far greater role in our lives than we think it does. Familiarity changes the way that we think. It drives our emotions, actions, and the things we take a stand for. And sometimes, familiarity causes us to think we know people who we actually don’t. Because of familiarity, we tend to care more about a millionaire living in the backwoods of Louisiana than the homeless man standing on the street corner in our own city.