Comment: Ukraine evokes empathy that’s both selfish, inspiring

Some of what we feel is tied to identifying with a similar culture, but some is out of admiration.

By Robin Givhan / The Washington Post

The world has seen images of Russian military might rolling through Ukraine’s suburbs, past modest houses and open fields and toward its cities. We have seen miles of Russian armored vehicles headed toward the capital, Kyiv, and heard the fearful prediction that they would surround it. Citizens have attempted to halt the tanks and soldiers with molotov cocktails, their own bodies and their seething outrage. Ukrainians have not thwarted the Russian invasion, but they have slowed it. And in those lapses and pauses, the Western world has had an opportunity to assess and parse its capacity for empathy.

Our empathy doesn’t flow naturally. It lies dormant below our own daily distractions and obsessions. It has to be coaxed to the surface. And it rises for reasons that are most often selfish and sometimes disheartening. But occasionally, our empathy awakens, and it’s inspiring.

The most distressing and alarming pictures to emerge from Ukraine have of course been those of the Ukrainians themselves. The world has seen them taking cover in subway stations, sitting on the ground with a few belongings — perhaps a family pet — along with a sense of fear, a cloud of bewilderment and pure anger. Like so many people in Europe and the United States, they were accustomed to looking at images of other people’s countries under attack as something that was sad, but distant. Something to be debated and managed. War across the ocean or beyond the sea was something political and volatile, familiar and dehumanized. But now, it is upon them, which in some ways means that it’s upon us.

Like everything else, empathy is meted out based on the same hierarchy that the Western world regularly uses to evaluate human worth. And so international borders have opened up for the white men and women who are fleeing Ukraine in more welcoming ways than they did for those who were fleeing violence in the Middle East and Africa. The Ukrainians have been hailed as “European,” as “civilized,” as people with “blue eyes and blonde hair.” The thinking seems to be that they are people who should not be suffering such violence because bombs and missiles are things that should not rain down on cities filled with high-rise buildings and bustling universities, an educated populace … on a predominantly white citizenry. The ugliness of our prejudices and stereotypes adds to the painful news that floods out of Ukraine minute by minute.

This isn’t a surprise. Empathy has long been built on this hierarchy. But now that the truth has been made plain, perhaps the world will remember to do better the next time those who are dark-skinned with brown eyes are on the run from missiles and terror. When people who look different or pray differently come knocking for solace, perhaps empathy will be a little closer to the surface, a little more passionately felt.

Our empathy is also drawn out by images of the mundane aspects of life that have been disrupted. Inanimate objects photographed in the rubble of an explosion tug at emotions, which is why there always seem to be pictures of a child’s doll lying limp amid debris or a framed family photograph covered in dust; its protective glass shattered by the upheaval. These photos are part of the story in Ukraine, too. But there are other photos that speak specifically to how swiftly life has changed: the boarded-up shops on pristine streets, the empty shelves in a busy grocery store, the people exiting a shiny red tram to head for shelter after sirens sound.

There are also the pictures from the second night of the assault when missiles fired at Kyiv damaged an apartment complex. It was a high-rise building; the sort that exists in any urban area, its architecture familiar to anyone who has visited Parisian neighborhoods out beyond the tourist zone, the parts of New York City that rarely make it into films or any of Washington’s gentrifying avenues. It’s a mixed-use complex with its exterior walls adorned with advertisements for fitness clubs. The ground floor bears a sign for a coffee shop.

In some of the pictures, a woman in a parka looks up at the damage, all the while holding onto the leash of a fuzzy little black dog. In another picture, one can see someone’s Mini Cooper with its windshield smashed and its front end wrecked from debris. Off in the distance, there are more high rises and squat buildings and they appear to be undamaged. And all of this brick and glass and metal tugs at one’s heart because it’s so clear just how recently everything was normal. The missiles weren’t fired into a landscape that had already been strafed by gunfire. It wasn’t a city frozen in some distant time. It is a city of dog walkers and fitness classes and coffee shops; and bombs. It’s all those things. And for those of us who live on similar blocks, that sparks a selfish, personal fear that also breeds empathy.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has coaxed empathy out of world leaders and global citizens with his words and imagery. He’s posted his videos to social media and has delivered powerful remarks to the European Parliament sounding like a determined man leading his country rather than an impassioned politician making his case. The slightly out-of-focus sight of him on the monitors in Brussels, with his scruffy beard and grim T-shirt, are the opposite of what so many might consider presidential. During times of disaster and stress, no matter how dire the circumstances, it always seems that America’s leaders reach for their embossed flight jackets, their polar fleece zip front with a presidential seal, their open-neck shirt with the rolled up sleeves.

Zelensky is a man situated against a blank wall with his country’s flag to his right. His words were a plea for membership in the European Union, words that made his English-language interpreter seemingly pause for breath and take a moment to compose himself after a surge of emotion. Zelensky was blunt and unvarnished in both words and image.

“We are fighting just for our land,” Zelensky said. “For our freedom.” And he implored the lawmakers to “prove they are with us.”

Zelensky was vulnerable on a global stage. That’s a political taboo and something rarely seen. But it’s a remarkable human trait. And one that compels our empathy.

Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press.

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