What Shakespearean tragedies tell us about who we mourn for

Do we have greater empathy toward tragedies of the high and mighty and ignore the plight of the suffering poor?

Ehtesham Shahid
Ehtesham Shahid
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Every terror strike these days is followed by stories of its unfortunate victims. From a budding student caught in crossfire to a professional sacrificing one’s life for a coworker, these tales of human tragedy create immediate empathy. The same routine follows a natural disasters or a plane crash.

There is a rider attached to it though. We are probably more moved by the tragedies of the rich and powerful compared to the ordinary folks. The ripple effect created by the high and mighty travels far and wide. There is greater furor when the more influential is targeted while the lesser known victims of the same tragedy don’t get the same attention.

So if a café in a big city is ripped apart by a hate-filled suicide bomber, the unwinding CEO who succumbs to his injuries is likely to get more television footage than the janitor who was on duty. The security guard who blocked a blood-thirsty maniac to safeguard lives of dozens may get occasional posthumous medals but often not the same empathy. In other words, if life was unfair to these ordinary folks, death does no better.

A senior colleague from Tunisia narrated two instances to drive this point home. Very recently, some high flying Tunisian victims of Istanbul attack were mourned by the entire nation and were even hailed as the torchbearers of the country’s heritage so much so that the country’s top leaders showed up at their residence. Fair enough and it was probably deserved.

However, weeks later, when ordinary Tunisians praying in a mosque were gunned down in Quebec, Canada, next to none talked about it back home.

So if a café in a big city is ripped apart by a hate-filled suicide bomber, the unwinding CEO who succumbs to his injuries is likely to get more television footage than the janitor who was on duty

Ehtesham Shahid

An unequal world

This is by no means an East vs West phenomenon as such a bias manifests itself in different ways. The World Bank last year said that natural disasters push 26 million into poverty each year. This may be a huge number but, I reckon, little more than a statistic of academic interest simply because hell would have broken loose if anything happened to 26 million rich people of this world.

In his book The Disaster Profiteers, John Mutter argues that disasters become a means by which the elite prosper at the expense of the poor. So probably, we feel greater empathy toward the rich especially when they are made equal with the poor in death.

When terror struck Mumbai in 2011, two spots became the main targets – a lavish hotel and a major railway station, besides a synagogue. Since victims at the hotel included the who’s who – not just local but also from abroad – the site every year gets more floral tributes than the railway station where ordinary workers lost their lives.

Shakespearean tragedies

But what has all this got to do with Shakespearean tragedies? Well, it’s the hamartia, or the tragic flaw that led to the downfall of all four great Shakespearean tragic heroes – Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear and Othello. They were all exalted figures who occupied center stage but caved in because of an inherent weakness in their characters.

Yet, we somehow identify with their misfortune and probably even celebrate it. It is not so much the flaw that matters as we are all flawed at some level. What makes these tragedies great is the fact that ordinary men and women, transcending historical and geographical boundaries, continue to empathize with the fall of these mighty men, which is why they are timeless classics. In other words, they are such giants in their own rights that their fall becomes even more spectacular.

In today’s day and age, as human suffering becomes more and more in-the-face, we must at least treat humans equally in death, even if it is just for the sake of maintaining sanity.
Ehtesham Shahid is Managing Editor at Al Arabiya English. For close to two decades he has worked as editor, correspondent, and business writer for leading publications, news wires and research organizations in India and the Gulf region. He loves to occasionally dabble with teaching and is collecting material for a book on unique tales of rural conflict and transformation from around the world. His twitter handle is @e2sham.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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