Context is Everything

Gun control and the Yemen conflict; women’s abuses in America and women’s abuses in Iraq; food insecurity in the U.S. and famine in Venezuela. The contrast of these issues — of those that worry the everyday American and those that destroy the lives of people every day in countries across the world — can be a daunting one. However, comparing your life and your issues to those of other people in another country is a task fraught with risk.

We all heard the saying as kids when we wouldn’t finish our veggies: “There are starving kids in Africa who don’t get anything to eat — you should be grateful to even have this meal.” And while that might motivate you to choke down another asparagus stalk, that comparison is wholly unfair.

Comparing issues across national borders not only partakes in an irresponsible ignorance of the massive cultural and developmental differences between countries, but can also actually serve to worsen the disparity between peoples of different nationalities.

In his book The Broken Ladder, UNC professor Keith Payne spends hundreds of pages examining the overwhelming evidence that comparisons to people outside of one’s social and economic strata has adverse impacts on a person’s psyche and decision-making process. When we, as children, compare ourselves to those starving kids in Africa, it has two main outcomes. The first is that we come to understand that we have something, and those African children do not have that thing — in this case it’s food. Second, and more insidiously, we come to think of those African children as separate from us — as “the other.” And there lies the  true danger of cross border comparisons.

Too often, these comparisons are framed through the lens of difference — it’s easy to think, for example, that a Syrian refugee lives in a totally different world from us and is of an entirely different stock than us. They are, therefore, not one of us. This in turn makes it more and more difficult for us to empathize with their plight and fulfill our moral duty to help them.

While the differences among people of the world are undeniable, it’s also undeniable that we share one key feature: we are all humans. That’s what is important to remember when juggling with the issues that plague humans around the globe. Comparisons aren’t all bad, so long as they’re done in a manner that balances them with a consideration of the things that make us the same.

For each time that you fret over the political insecurity that’s displaced millions in the Middle East, remind yourself that those displaced humans have many of the same wants and needs that you do. They seek a roof over their head and a meal on their dinner table every night. And while most of us here at Carrboro are lucky enough to have those things, that doesn’t make us any better or any different than the people that don’t, especially as those who go without can be found in a tent camp in Turkey and in the seat next to us in chemistry.

Posted by Levi Hencke

Levi is a junior who likes traveling, sailing, and the Tar Heels. He was born in Denver, CO, but has lived in Chapel Hill for most of his life. CHS is the second high school he’s attended, but by far his favorite.