Outernet: A Statement About Ferguson, Missouri

I have spent my life listening to people lament the repetitive dreariness of the mainstream news cycle - murder, terrorism, economic woe, natural disaster - but the last two weeks have been particularly troubling. First, there was the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, which led to large scale protests and rioting, resulting in a overwhelming police response largely seen as excessive. Then there was the execution of journalist James Foley by the Islamic State (IS) in Syria. Both of these events happened against the backdrop of the ongoing fighting in Gaza between Hamas and Israel and the separatist movement in Ukraine.

"What is the cause of all of this?" One might ask. Is it in our human nature, or is there something else at work? While it is a foolhardy exercise to try and reduce these tragedies to a single cause, there is something that they all share. They are all rooted in two groups of people that do not trust one another and, on a very fundamental level, do not understand one another.

This brings us to the heart of empathy. If I could truly understand your worldview - the reasons you feel the way you do about a particular issue or set of issues - then there is much less of a chance that I will resort to violence. I can put myself in your shoes.

How do we bridge this gap of understanding? One way, is through fighting ignorance.

This is one of the principle aims of Outernet. With a library that spans language, geography, culture, and history, everyone everywhere can finally read anything they want. We all crave information. If there is an unknown, we want to make it known. Nothing can take the place of experiencing diversity in the world, but if I am a white person who knows nothing about black history, I am probably much less likely to seek out that experience than if I do. Understanding breeds empathy.

We have been thinking about these events at Outernet, particularly the riots in Ferguson since they are so close to some of us, and we created this website as a way to talk about why this happens in the United States. Let us know what you think in the comments.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://blog.outernet.is/2014/08/a-statement-about-ferguson-missouri.html

Hi Richard,

I have been pondering your post and the interesting points you make, and thinking about how to respond.

Undoubtedly there is a lot of bad stuff going on the World; Gaza, ISIS, Ukraine, Sudan, Ferguson and so on and so on. The list is long, and the human tragedy real.

On the other hand, I don’t think we should overestimate how bad things are. The academic and writer Stephen Pinker, in a detailed analysis in his 2011 book ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’ makes a convincing case that the level of violence in the World has declined substantially over the past centuries and, in fact, we may now be living in the least violent age ever.

So why doesn’t it seem like it? I think that it must largely be due to the double-edged sword of global communications. Now, thanks to 24h rolling news, multi-channel TV and, of course, the Internet itself, terrible events are flashed around the World and into our homes in a matter of minutes. Yet, as you say, global communications can also be the solution, helping us to understand different cultures and views in a way that was never possible before.

Many of the problems facing us today are driven by lack of empathy and understanding with others. We generalise people and cultures, and we fear things that we do not understand. Many people grow up in little cultural islands, never meeting people different to themselves, never being exposed to other cultures, and this can only breed misunderstanding.

I consider myself fortunate. My work has taken me around the World, and I have friends and colleagues in every continent. I have been exposed to many different cultures, religions, political systems, and so on. I hope, sincerely, that I am open-minded and do not generalise.

An example of my experience… It was September 11, 2001, I was in my hotel in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, getting ready to go out to dinner with my colleagues when I switched on CNN and sat, stunned, for an hour or so watching events unfold. I almost didn’t go for dinner, but my colleagues arrived at the hotel to take me, and off we went. It was too early to be sure who was behind the attacks, but we all knew that it was going to be an Islamist group such as Al Qaeda. So we went to dinner, and we sat and we talked and talked. Me a non-religious Englishman, sitting with several Emirati locals, both Sunni and Shia, trying to make sense of it all. Tabloid misrepresentation would have had my colleagues militantly supporting the attacks, but of course it wasn’t like that at all. They all, unreservedly, were at pains to say that such attacks were against their religion, their morality and their politics. They condemned the attacks outright. For the next few days, every Emirati that I met was emphatic to ensure that I understood that the 9/11 attacks were not done in their name nor in the name of their religion. It made a big impact on me, and I recall it vividly to this day.

Generalisations divide us. Exposure to real people and their views and opinions brings understanding and draws us closer together. It’s much too easy to think “all Muslims are terrorists”, but sit with real people, eat with them, find out what makes them tick, and soon you realise that most of us, underneath, are much the same. We can only live together in peace if we understand each other better.

I am happy to support Outernet because I see its ambition to connect the World with free news and information as a critical step on that road to greater understanding.

I sincerely hope that you are successful.

I actually agree with you. We are on a strong upward trajectory. Generalizations help no one, which is hopefully something that Outernet can help correct. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!