It’s Over There So Why Should We Care?

September 1, 2020

Why do we only really give a damn about events occurring in our own neck of the woods? CARRIE STEELE explains the Proximity Principle.

We travel all around the show but do we care about the world after we return home?

The Proximity Principle has been put to the test by a number of news items of late. On each occasion, it pretty much lived up to the theory that what happens far from home is harder to relate to and therefore, easier to ignore.

It started with the mudslide in Korea, where tragically, three New Zealand Nationals lost their lives. Then there was the explosion in Beirut. These events certainly made the news, but neither raised much (if any) conversation in my circles; work, social or family. I actually brought up the Beirut explosion at the kitchen bench the next morning at work and three people knew nothing about it, and one seemed far more focused on the fact that her usual coffee haunt had been closed.

We’re great travellers but do we really care about anything except our own patch?

Before I go on, let me clarify that the Proximity Principle I refer to has nothing to do with the book of the same name that talks about “how to position yourself for success”. If only it was such a merry idea.

Wikipedia has a succinct explanation of the basics of the Proximity Principle, and how it is demonstrated in the area of social psychology. Put simplistically, we are more likely to be friendly with people we work with, or who are living in the same building as us, or belong to the same sports club. The more often we see each other, the more likely we are to develop and maintain a friendship. We humans tend to be creatures of habit, and we easily bond with things that are familiar to us and people who have the same likes and dislikes that we do. That all seems very straightforward.

But what’s really interesting is how the Proximity Principle can be applied in such a way that explains why it can be easier to ignore unpleasant events. I’m referring here to the notion that when an event occurs somewhere far from home, in a country that perhaps we’ve never visited – to people whose daily lives may little resemble our own – it does not have anywhere near the same impact as if the same event had happened in our own backyard.

We seem more concerned about a local cafe closing than a catastrophic world event

Malena Ernman in the Ernman-Thunberg book Our House Is On Fire talks about how the norm is that when catastrophic events occur, they are rated in importance by most of us according to how relatable in distance and in social status the event and its effect on other people is to us.

It is an interesting theory and one that would certainly go a long way to explain why the issues around climate change do not gather strength each time one of these catastrophes occur. Ernman suggests that applied this way, the Proximity Principle has served to help keep our eyes shut and our hearts light, simply because it is easier to guiltlessly ignore tragedies occurring in other parts of the world. This is certainly an interesting observation, but while it is understandable that we find it harder to relate to things that don’t affect us personally, it is also a frightening thought as it means that we are not gaining any insight from the experiences of others.

Are people in other countries just too weird to care about?

Last summer, bushfires razed more than 12 million hectares of the Australian landscape. That’s almost the size of England. Those fires were certainly on our radar, especially on the afternoon that Auckland turned yellow. I recall last December exiting from the terminal on to the railway platform at Brisbane Airport and inhaling the stench of smoke; I seriously wondered how I was going to manage a week of it, but it turned out it was a particularly bad day for it and during the course of the week it came and went, and I suspect I got used to it to a certain extent.

What about the Californian wildfires now raging? Are they scary enough to us, or are they too far away to be so? The Governor of California, Gavin Newsom,  says wildfires raging in his state “should give pause to anyone who denies climate change”.

Last year India experienced the wettest monsoon in 25 years. They needed the rain to counteract a critical water shortage, but when it came it caused disastrous flooding, leading to the deaths of at least 1750 people. There were also the European heatwaves, and the July heatwave last year was reportedly the hottest in European history. How did those events affect us? Did we lose any sleep?

Perhaps it’s time to hit the reset button on our thoughts?

This rumination isn’t really all about climate change, though it’s never far from my mind; it’s about how we can use the Proximity Principle to analyse our feelings and reactions to a raft of issues. In recent years there’s been a lot of talk about something called ‘compassion fatigue’. It focused largely on how workers in certain occupations, such as healthcare and social services, could get so overcome by caring and being sympathetic that they could suffer compassion fatigue, making it difficult to keep giving. Perhaps that is another factor that influences why we find it easier to shut ourselves off from bad news when circumstances and distance allow us to do so. After all, there’s only so much bad news we can take, right?

If the Proximity Principle were operating in its most widely interpreted form, ‘associating with the familiar’, then it’s interesting that though so many of us these days have visited and/or lived in many different parts of the world, in many ways we remain as insular as ever. At the risk of sounding harsh, it seems to me that often we visit or live in other parts of the world as and when it suits us, taking the very best that other countries have to offer (namely big salaries or extravagant holidays), always with the intention of returning to the comforts of ‘home’, wherever home is, at a time that suits. Does that attitude we have of ‘borrowed time in borrowed places’ prevent us from forming permanent bonds – bonds that would endure the good, the bad and the ugly? Bonds that would shake us up when we hear of terrible events affecting those same places where we once ourselves were?

It seems often, not. For example, I was in Italy the year before the ‘worst heatwave in Europe’. I felt blessed to be enjoying such a late summer, temperatures in the early 30s well along in September. We soaked up the sun and slept with the windows ajar to let the cooler night air in and I somehow managed to bury the thought that actually, Italy was burning up.

Are we just interested in geographic topiary and not the world’s people?

Could the solution to all the global problems we face today just be that we need to present a united front? That we have to cease immediately having any ideas that it’s okay for some places and some people to be collateral damage? Is it possible for us to start living as if we are one people – one world – despite the distances that separate us? Can we know of each other’s dreams, and learn each other’s prayers? Or will the Proximity Principle continue to prevent that?

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Carrie writes about whole foods, plant-based eating and the gamut of her journey to find out what it takes to live a healthy life. Changing her diet shattered a lot of myths around the norms of the Western lifestyle and her columns - which take in travel and reflections on life and the universe - mirror this new perspective.

1 Comment

  1. Not really.

    Cultures and income levels are too different between the world’s people for there to be a global consensus on ranking the priority of problems. For you it might be global warming for someone in Niger it will be what do I need to do to put food on the table.

    In a 100-200 years maybe but not yet.

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