When I started my little social enterprise two years ago in Northeast India, the region had the most displaced people of anywhere in the world. Our weavers set up their looms, continued feeding their silk worms, spinning the cocoons and turning life into fabric. Their long-held traditions continued defiantly in the wake of the decades-long armed conflict that has plagued the region.
During the following year, as our little company grew, Syria and Iraq swiftly outstripped the Northeast in numbers of displaced, and the world turned its attention to the resulting European refugee crisis. In June 2014 the UNHCR announced that the global displacement numbers, at 50 million, were higher than WW2.
According to the UNHCR, global displacement hit its all time high in July 2015.
So you can see why the world paid little attention when violence once again erupted in Assam in late 2014. More than 65 people were killed by militants, including 21 women and 18 children. Nor did we notice in September 2015, when more than a million people were hit by flooding, as the mighty Brahmaputra river engulfed 1,276 villages, destroyed 900 kilometers of crops, and left nearly 100,000 people seeking refuge in over 200 relief camps. We were distracted.
Our hearts and minds were occupied with the thousands of people per day who were flooding into Greece and Turkey. But we had already been paying attention to the conflict in Syria for so long that new massacres, new piles of bodies, were no longer newsworthy. Our focus was on Europe - on the social and economic impact that the influx of people was having on comfortable 'regular' European people and their communities. People like us.
This is what is known in development circles as tragedy fatigue. When a story isn’t hot and new, it is no longer interesting to a wide audience.
Which is why 9/11 was the biggest news day of the century – because it happened very quickly, in the most unexpected way imaginable, in a city that had never seen the face of warfare. It was news cycle gold.
Northeast India is a news cycle lump of coal. As our company’s content manager, I am acutely aware that people are not interested.
This is despite the fact that more than twice the population of Australia live there, and one third of them live below the poverty line. It’s despite the fact that more than 35 armed insurgent groups are in current operation, and it is one of the key arms, weapons and human trafficking routes of the world. Hollywood couldn’t write better drama if it tried. But protracted conflict is different. It doesn’t command our attention, let alone our money.
I initially found it perplexing that when people asked about my work in India, the conversation would often end as soon as I explained that I work with conflict affected women. I imagine this is much the same for those who work with victims of sexual violence, torture, or even soldiers. People are unwilling to engage with hardship because, frankly, it’s a bummer.
It is psychologically impossible to endure endless tragedy. I don’t expect anyone to spend their lives scrolling through videos of people being tortured, or through photos of drowned children washing up on a beach.
Humans have a limit on the amount of tragedy we can absorb, but we shouldn’t have a cap on empathy. For every depressing news update from the field, there are thousands of stories of hope and inspiration.
During last year’s Paris attacks, a quote I saw on Twitter nearly brought me to tears:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping” – Fred Rogers
If you look for the helpers, there is hope. If you look to the people left behind, who rebuild their communities and find ways to keep going, there is hope.
Even within stories that suck, that bring us down, there is beauty and hope that can be found.
And not all stories suck to begin with. Things can change, and they do. Sometimes, empathy is a revolutionary act. Instead of gobbling up the tragedy clickbait of ISIS, we could be reading a story of resilience in the face of bullshit. We could be turning our mind to the positive stories of change in these supposedly yawn-worthy corners of the globe.
The magical part is, Google Analytics knows how much time you and everyone else spends reading different stories. Every time you spend ten minutes reading about a radical and inspirational person you’re casting a little vote in the right direction. It’ll benefit not only your mental health, but will add value to our collective news experience.
When it comes to the storytelling of our brand, we don't focus on the negative. We would rather highlight how awesome our weavers are, how they are the helpers, the ones who have fought to keep their communities alive.
It’s predictable that the region in which we work is ignored by the beast of the international news cycle, but a little bit of attention from our little company has generated sales, which has shifted the lives of these women for the better.
Take Baidu’s* story for example. Baidu is an ex officer in the liberation front of Assam. Having witnessed horrific violence as a young woman, she was emboldened by the political message of the resistance. Baidu spent her life in the jungle, taking up arms and eventually ranking as a commander. When her village was left in tatters after an attack, Baidu surrendered, entering into peaceful negotiations. Baidu and a group of other women commandeered a disused building and built a silk farm. Today, Baidu is their quality control mainstay, buoyed by a renewed demand for indigenous silk. From armed renegade to entrepreneur – Baidu is just one lady making waves. Out of so, so many.
Our weavers are dynamic, engaging, hilarious women – who could probably kick your butt in more ways than one. Don’t feel sorry for them. They’re legends.
When it comes to The Fabric Social, we don’t just ignore the tragedy aspects of our work because people don’t engage. We also think stories of hope are fundamentally the right story to tell. Tragedy should never be paraded around to get a couple of extra bucks in a crowdfunding campaign. Not now, not ever.
You can start by voting with your mouse right away. Go on, I dare you.
Fiona McAlpine is a Melbourne native, who has trained as a journalist and lawyer in Australia, West Africa and South Asia. She is the co-founder of The Fabric Social, an ethical fashion brand working exclusively with conflict-affected women. The Fabric Social work to transform one of the greatest causes of poverty: armed conflict. You can shop, donate, or get involved here.
*Photography by Aaron Hollett for The Fabric Social and AFP. Names have been changed to protect the identity of our weavers.