Spare us the competitive altruism

If you do not agree that the latest popular cause is more important than any other, you'll be called unfeeling
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The Independent Online

In the past couple of days, it has become clear that the number of Britons killed or missing in the Asian tsunami is much higher than previously declared. Around the world, there has been an outpouring of sympathy for all the victims of the waves, combined with fund-raising on a scale that has shamed governments into increasing their own contributions. The UK is no exception, and money started rolling in well before the impact on this country was fully realised. Such spontaneous generosity is touching, so it is all the sadder that some newspapers chose last week to turn the disaster into a shameful contest.

In the past couple of days, it has become clear that the number of Britons killed or missing in the Asian tsunami is much higher than previously declared. Around the world, there has been an outpouring of sympathy for all the victims of the waves, combined with fund-raising on a scale that has shamed governments into increasing their own contributions. The UK is no exception, and money started rolling in well before the impact on this country was fully realised. Such spontaneous generosity is touching, so it is all the sadder that some newspapers chose last week to turn the disaster into a shameful contest.

In an outbreak of what might be termed competitive altruism, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express boasted about the generosity of their readers. Self-congratulation oozed from the pages of the popular press as the story became not just the disaster but our astoundingly nice reaction to it.

Nor was the competition confined to cash, for there was also a search for the most tragic victim, creating an atmosphere that began to remind me of reactions to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. The three-minute silence at midday on Wednesday was an example: even though many people believed it was too long, or inappropriate, it would have taken a brave soul to carry on with whatever he or she was doing, at least in public.

A huge Sun headline - "Day Earth Stood Still" - summed up what is wrong with all this. It referred not to Boxing Day, when the devastating tsunami struck, but to last Wednesday, when "big-hearted Brits" showed how much they cared by writing cheques and observing the silence. The idea that our common humanity requires something beyond an occasional transfer of resources, in response to a dire emergency, does not get canvassed on these occasions. The problem, and it is a problem no matter how generously people have responded in the past fortnight, is that some events - the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, now the Asian tsunami - affect ordinary people more than others. They touch a chord in a way other calamitous events do not.

The scale of the public response to disasters seems to be guided by irrational factors, so it is not surprising that the mood should be febrile, mutating from sympathy to sentimentality in a very short space of time. And if you do not go along with the view that the latest popular cause is more important than any other, you will be attacked as unfeeling - unfit for your job, even, if you happen to be prime minister and fail to rush back from your holiday.

This was a rare lapse on the part of Tony Blair, who usually has a much more certain feel for the popular pulse, but on this occasion he rightly assumed that his ministers were capable of coping without him. Perhaps he was already thinking about the problems of Africa, to which he devoted much of his first big speech of the year on Thursday, pointing out that the equivalent of a man-made, preventable tsunami happens every week in that continent.

This is perfectly true, but we do not hold weekly silences in response - not for the victims of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, not for the millions dying of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, not even for the thousands raped and murdered in Darfur. It is an unwelcome reminder that most people in prosperous countries go about their lives for the most part impervious to the hunger, natural disasters and massacres that cause such misery elsewhere.

I know there are exceptions; people who quietly write standing orders to Oxfam, giving small sums every month instead of waiting for the next catastrophe. But huge numbers of people seem not to be moved by the dreadful state of half the world until it's on their TV screens and in their morning papers. This may sound harsh, but I cannot help feeling uneasy about the arbitrary nature of these outbursts of compassion and the emotional correctness that so often accompanies them.

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