The hard sciences advance through controlled experiment: if you repeat the same procedures under the same conditions, you should get the same results. If you’re testing what difference it makes to change one thing (a “variable”), everything else must stay the same. That’s how new drugs are tested against placebos, for example.
For obvious reasons, controlled experiments are hard to do in sociology and almost impossible in history. Yet we have run an almost perfect such test in the last decade, and it has to do with the differing Western responses to the Russian genocides in Syria and Ukraine. The question is what this difference means.
Millions of refugees fled the Russian (and Iranian, and Assad regime) assaults on Sunni Muslim Arabs in Syria, and even larger numbers of people are now running from Russia’s barbaric attacks in Ukraine. With one major exception, Western countries including the United States gave Syrian refugees the cold shoulder, grudgingly admitting minimal numbers — and of course America, under Trump, let in none. The standout was Germany, where Angela Merkel let in some one million refugees, while exhorting her countrymen, “We can do it!” Be it remembered, she was the leader of the Christian Democrats, Germany’s main center-right party since World War II. Compassion is not the sole preserve of the left.
The reaction to Ukrainian refugees in Europe and America has been much more positive, including in countries, notably Poland, that were traditionally hostile to Ukrainians. Volunteers have set out from as far away as England and the United States to help refugees arriving at the Polish border. The question is, why the different attitude? Is it because Europeans and Americans see Ukrainians as more similar culturally, religiously, etc, to themselves, or is it mainly self-interested banding together in the face of the common Russian threat, or is it just racism and religious prejudice? Frustratingly for those who prefer to see the world in black and white, the answer is yes, to all of the above. From a vantage point of disinterested humanitarianism, this uneasy mixture may be deplorable, but it’s a feature common to most human beings. The Syrian war aroused much greater passions in the Arab Muslim world for the same mixture of reasons, good and bad.
These aren’t just philosophical reflections or empty lamentations about the flaws in human nature. The mounting climate catastrophes of our time are already setting millions of refugees in motion. In the coming years, the numbers of desperate people will swell beyond all imagining. But we are meeting the beginnings of this worldwide crisis with behavior no better than we ever have shown, as a species. Our greatest prophets, of all religions and none, have tried to teach love for all human beings, but it is a standard most of us are unable to reach and unwilling to even attempt, at least most of the time. If a civilization worth the name is to survive, we must figure out how to spread a form of compassion based in self-interest and genuine fellow-feeling that emphasizes what we have in common with others, while being realistic about most people’s moral limitations.