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Migrants and Millionaires: Unequal in Life and Death

The death of five rich people overshadowed the deaths of 700 poor people. Why?

Key points

  • Migrants are viewed as "them," by definition outsiders, agents of potential instability, and hence suspect.
  • We attend to what is odd rather than familiar, concrete rather than abstract, and easy rather than hard.
  • Wealth bestows power. Power attracts attention because it has the potential to be consequential in our lives.
  • Media outlets driven by profit push stories that are compelling, rather than those that are important.

On Wednesday, June 14, a fishing boat carrying migrants from Libya to Italy capsized off the Greek coast. More than 700 men, women, and children from Syria, Pakistan, and Egypt drowned.

On Sunday, June 19, a submersible holding five wealthy tourists on their way to view the remains of the Titanic lost contact with the mother ship. The passengers had a few days of oxygen available. Before long, a wide-ranging and expensive rescue effort got underway, a proverbial "race against time."

By Friday, June 23, the submersible story had thoroughly eclipsed the migrant boat story. A Google search for “migrant boat capsize 2023” yielded 3,180,000 results; a search for “submersible accident 2023” yielded 128,000,000 hits.

This may seem surprising because, on the face of it, the migrant boat story is much bigger than the submersible story on every level. Many more people, including women and children, were lost in the boat accident. The victims aboard the boat were by and large powerless, poor, and desperate people pushed to escape grim circumstances in search of a better life.

The submersible contained five powerful rich men who volunteered for a dangerous novelty adventure. The migrants crammed into the boat risking their lives for a better future—a morally compelling motive; the tourists crammed into the submersible risking their lives for thrills—a morally neutral motive at best.

Moreover, the migrant boat story embodied pressing worldwide issues with broad implications—population migration is affecting millions around the world directly, and all of us indirectly. Rich men deep sea tourism is at best a niche concern, irrelevant to most people’s lives.

Why, then, did the submersible story overshadow the migrant boat disaster so quickly? Several reasons come to mind.

As Alex Sheperd notes in The New Republic, the submersible story was for a while an unresolved mystery. We did not know what happened. An attention-compelling race against time ensued, along with the titillating possibilities of witnessing a heroic happy ending or a shocking tragedy.

In contrast, by the time the capsized boat story broke, the clock had already run out on the dead migrants. Our brains have evolved to tend to unfolding events.

vicxmendoza for Pixabay
Source: vicxmendoza for Pixabay

Our brains have also evolved to tend to odd and new features of our environment. The whole submersible endeavor gave off an odd sideshow vibe—the site of people paying obscene amounts of money for dangerous, esoteric thrills.

The submersible story is also a novel news event. We don’t hear much about submersibles; not to mention suspiciously rickety and unregulated ones packed with thrill-seeking rich men; not to mention ones that are lost en route to the romanticized underwater grave site that is the Titanic.

The migrant story, on the other hand, is unfortunately old news. We’ve heard it before. There is no thrill to it. It is grim all around.

Moreover, human beings survive and thrive only in cohesive groups. Our deepest impulses concern tribal identity and integrity. The distinctions between friend and foe, between "us" and "them" are crucial to our survival.

For established citizens of a culture, migrants are inherently "them," by definition outsiders, agents of potential instability, and hence regarded with suspicion. The fact that the migrants on the boat were mostly dark-skinned no doubt saddled them with another dimension of "otherness" in the particular eyes of white-dominated Western culture. The white men inside the submersible were established citizens, insiders through and through, and as such easier for many to identify with and care about.

The migrants' story is also large in scope. Our brains have a hard time grasping largeness. We can comprehend and relate emotionally to the story of one person much better than we can the story of many. Reading one girl’s holocaust diary resonates and moves us in a way that contemplating "six million murdered" does not.

The numbers of poor migrants are huge, and their plight is spread worldwide. The large size and daunting complexity overwhelm us, leading to apathy and avoidance. In other words, the migrants' story received little coverage not despite its large size, but rather because of it.

Moreover, our brains are designed to conserve energy. We are thus often loath to take on the hard task of thinking through difficult problems. As Daniel Kahneman has shown, when we encounter a difficult question, we often swap it for an easier one.

The migration issue poses hard existential questions, complex and indefinite and dragging across time and continents. The faith of the submersible tourists poses much easier, technical ones, inherently concrete, definitive, and time-bounded. No wonder we choose to engage it.

Finally, our contemporary hierarchical consumer culture has installed wealth as its chief aspiration and the wealthy as its totems. Wealth is power, and power attracts attention because it is bound to be consequential in our lives. We are thus much more likely to tend to the shenanigans of the wealthy than the plight of the poor. In other words, the fact that each one of the dead tourists had wealth exceeding that of all the dead migrants combined is not immaterial to the disparity in coverage.

Media outlets that are driven by profit motives (which is currently most media) will push stories that are compelling, rather than those that are important. Compelling stories are those that activate our above-mentioned evolved tendencies—to privilege the odd over the familiar, the new over the old, the personalized and concrete over the globalized and abstract, the easy over the hard. This strategy increases our media consumption and the media's profits, but it comes at a cost.

Like migration, the most important and urgent problems of our time are unattractively grim, global, large, complex, chronic, and hard. As such, they are insufficiently covered, and are thus more likely to end up eluding our awareness, understanding, and attention—hence remaining unsolved.

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