Where do our priorities come from? What makes us decide that this is worth our attention but that is not? What are the ingredients that need to be in place or the circumstances that must come into play for something to become worthy of our care and concern? Why is A, B or C (and even D, E and F and so on to the end of the alphabet) a priority for one person but not for another?
I know I am asking questions without ready answers. Or maybe there are no answers at all. Or does it even matter?
Recent events, not the least of which include the still ongoing public protests in Tbilisi against the visit of a Russian government official to the Georgian Parliament which sparked outrage among citizens and led to injuries, arrests and a high-level government resignation, have cast a spotlight on some of society’s priorities at the local – here in Georgia – and the international levels but have also prompted us – well, at least me – to question these priorities and why they have appeared on the checklist of where we need to direct our attention (and our charitable donations).
One of the best examples of society’s current priorities, I believe, can be found in the tragic fire that damaged much of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris in April of this year. Overnight and in the immediate aftermath, donations for its reconstruction poured in and surpassed the one-billion-euro mark. Vive la France! Vive la République! Notre Dame will one day return to its original splendor. Maybe even better. At the same time, social media posts showed people grieving for the loss of a building as if they were mourning the death of a person. But this was a building. Not a person.
While all of this was unfolding to the sound of a cash register ringing, I could not help but think to myself the greater good that could be done with this kind of money. We have poverty, refugees homeless and stateless owing to ugly wars and their ugly warlords, famine, genocide, mass unemployment and people with disabilities unable to overcome their challenges because of budgets and indifference with the list, sadly, going on and on.
Yemen, for example, is completely ignored on anyone’s agenda despite the fact that UNICEF tells us in its 2018 report that one Yemeni child dies every 10 minutes, more than 10,000 civilians have been killed, more than 40,000 have been wounded and over 22 million people require humanitarian assistance in some form or another. Twenty. (pause) Two. (pause) Million. (pause) The number is so staggering that it bears repeating slowly to try and grasp the magnitude of the crisis. If we do the mathematics of this human tragedy, we will see that over 80% of the population – and Yemen was already one of the world’s poorest countries prior to the incursion – is living in situations of dire need since the Saudi invasion in 2015.
Closer to home, here in Georgia, we can also observe how the local society sets its priorities.
Last year, in May 2018, one of Tbilisi’s top techno nightclubs, Bassiani, renown as far as the European capitals, was raided by the police and the special forces in response to increasing drug-related deaths in the city. Clubbers who were there spoke of the use of indiscriminate and disproportionately heavy measures on the part of law enforcement and took to the streets in droves to protest the raid and the subsequent shut-down of the club and demand the resignation of the then Prime Minister, Giorgi Kvirikashvili (he did resign), and the still (but perhaps not for long now) Minister of Internal Affairs, Giorgi Gakharia. The demonstration attracted thousands, mainly young people, with the club’s DJs setting up a sound system outside in front of the Parliament and everyone dancing in a peaceful protest rave that went on for days and garnered international media coverage.
In August 2008, Russia launched a war against Georgia which, among countless human injuries, casualties, and cases of ethnic cleansing filed at the European Court of Human Rights, resulted in the annexation of two regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russian troops installed a new demarcation line of razor wire and threateningly worded signposts and started a process of creeping annexation which continues to the present day. Georgian citizens, living in this buffer zone, are detained, terrorized, kidnapped and even murdered as in the tragic death of Archil Tatunashvili who was brutally killed by the occupying forces in South Ossetia last year in 2018.
Until Russian Member of Parliament, Sergei Gavrilov, appeared in Tbilisi for the Orthodox Assembly and addressed the tribunal from the Parliamentary Speaker’s chair this week on June 20, public reaction on the part of society in response to the Russian occupation and the continued movement of the borderline further into Georgian territory has been minimum to none since 2008.
So, where do our priorities come from? How do we set them?
Why is a lovely building with a tower and spires which was damaged in a fire, but which most people have not visited, more important than Yemeni citizens with nothing to eat and drink and starving to death if cholera does not kill them first?
Why is a dance party with DJ Kancheli more important than defending territorial sovereignty and national dignity against an enemy with centuries of demonstrated aggression against you? Again, this priority changed only this week.
Perhaps this is the answer: If I do not see it with my own eyes, it is not a priority for me. It is blind apathy but it explains the examples I have given of Yemen and Georgia’s borders but not Notre Dame because most of the world does not live in central Paris.
Perhaps this is the answer: If it does not directly affect me personally, it is not a priority for me. It is also blind apathy but again explains Yemen and Georgia’s borders (most of Georgia’s population lives outside of the illegal border zone) but not Notre Dame.
Or perhaps ego-centrism is the answer: I am the most important person in my life. This explains the complete indifference of society as concerns the Yemeni crisis, the outrage and public protest against Bassiani’s closing, the until only recently flipping apathy towards Russian occupation but not the outpouring of attention and money for a charred and half-collapsed French cathedral.
Or maybe it is this: Fatigue leads to apathy. Crisis fatigue, compassion fatigue, charity fatigue. The world is so full of problems and so overwhelmed by them that society, in general, has become desensitized by a crisis seemingly everywhere you look, levels of human compassion which are perhaps being exhausted little by little and not enough disposable income for someone or something outside of ourselves after our own personal needs and wants have been satisfied (or simply wanting to spend this money only on ourselves).
Humanity and the society it creates has the power to pull together under the noblest of priorities but it does so selectively if at all. Imagine what we could do if we really had our priorities in the right places.