Crisis Relief Singapore: http://www.crisisrelief.org/
Crisis Relief Singapore:
http://www.crisisrelief.org/
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It has recently been reported that Facebook is considering broadening the range of options for expressing emotional responses at the click of a button from just “likes” to “dislikes” and possibly others. The motivation behind this is reported to be users’ desire to express sympathy for a sad event (eg. the death of a friend or relative) without “liking” it. This has caused some consternation as to whether such automated reactions are sufficient for an emotion such as sympathy.
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The concern seems to be centred around whether sympathy should be reduced to a relatively abstract, automated and easily quantifiable format. I would suggest that this could be an entirely appropriate way of expressing sympathy because it is itself often an abstract, distant way of engaging with an issue. This automation of sympathy perhaps lies with our increasing tendency to engage with situations we think are wrong through sympathy rather than thorough active involvement.
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The increased use of the internet and World Wide Web has been trumpeted as enabling  people to engage with important “causes”. It is rare for a day to pass without being asked to like a page in order to “show support” or “spread the message” and the signing of petitions has taken on a new life in the age of Facebook. There is now even an official Facebook app dedicated to “causes“.  Of course, awareness raising and petitioning governments or companies can have a material impact but is no substitute for action. Last year Crisis Relief Singapore launched a campaign called “Liking isn’t helping” using images such as the one above. The aim of this campaign was to highlight that “showing support” through social media does not always lead to real change.
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But sympathy is not always a sufficient response, indeed, it may even be counter productive to a cause if sympathy is felt but no action is taken or action taken which directly damages the cause for which sympathy or support was given.
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Feminist writers such as Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings have proposed a conceptual and practical distinction between “caring about” and “caring for”. The former is abstract and detached while the latter is practical and engaged. “Caring for” has largely been associated with the kinds of domestic labour traditionally conducted mostly by women and which has usually not being paid, or paid very low amounts. This kind of caring is hard work, requires ongoing engagement and the entwinement of the lives and futures of those involved. “Caring about” is a much easier “concern” for others and is closer to the kind of “sympathy” which is enabled through Facebook and is perhaps more prominent than ever.
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Is the sympathy of the television viewer for the victims of a tsunami on the other side of the world useful? Is the sympathy of the colleague who crosses the picket line on a strike useful?
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Of course sympathy is an important part of human engagement and potentially a spur to social relations and I would not want to denigrate it but a problem may emerge if it replaces active engagement. If we feel that we have done enough merely by expressing our sympathy for someone else’s plight does this mean we won’t take further action?. In the age of Facebook when such sympathy can be easily quantified through analysis of the amount of likes a page or comment receives or when significant efforts are put into the marketing of a cause through “raising awareness” it may be too easy to think that sympathy itself is sufficient. It may seem that something has been achieved simply because a lot of people “liked” or “disliked” a page.
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