March 2023 marked 12 years since the beginning of the war in Syria. The exact death toll is unknown because the violence won’t stop long enough to count the dead, but reliable sources estimate that at least half a million people have died and 6.7 million more have fled their homes. March 2023 was also the first anniversary of Russia’s war in Ukraine, which has led to some 200,000 casualties. In the same month, the situation in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo deteriorated, as armed groups intensified attacks against civilians. In Mexico, at least 38 people died in a detention center for refugees and migrants, most of whom were fleeing the crisis in Venezuela. In the Mediterranean, more than 100 people died while trying to navigate cruel border policies to seek refuge in Europe.
The news is a morbid litany of the ways in which the world is failing. It feels like crisis after crisis is cresting, and we are less empowered to respond to them than ever. What are people on one side of the world supposed to do about suffering on the other? What does it mean to “do something” in 2023? In other words, what do we owe each other?
I’ll be writing a column once a week for six weeks, and I hope to explore these questions further in this series of essays. As an African writer, I consistently confront the impression of others that I am empowered to care only about things that are somehow of Africa—either happening on or affecting the continent. The invitation to see the entire world is extended only to white men, and the rest of us can challenge their perceptions only when they overlap with the section of the world we occupy.
But being concerned about things beyond the boundaries of your life is a fundamental obligation of anyone who considers themself a citizen of the world. If for philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau the citizen is a person who participates in the civic life of their society, then a citizen of the world bears an obligation to participate in the civic life of the whole planet. To be in the world with (and not just next to) others implies engaging with and being invested in one another’s survival.
With the globalization of information creating things like the 24-hour news cycle and social media, the demands on our attention are great and growing. How does this obligation hold up in the face of these new demands? This is the core concern of these essays: What does it mean to show proper concern for those with whom we share this world?
If concern begins with knowledge, then proper concern begins with evaluating what we know about the world and how we come about knowing it. How many of us, when asked what we know about crises like Syria, Afghanistan, or the DRC, would feel like we had enough information to help people from those regions? This is not an empty hypothetical. The recent earthquake in Turkey and Syria compounded the suffering of millions of Syrians because humanitarian assistance had to be provided in the context of war and cycles of displacement that much of the world had forgotten. Do the people calling for harsher border responses in the United Kingdom know that Afghan refugees make up a significant percentage of those seeking asylum in the UK because they were abandoned when allied troops withdrew in 2022? Proper information means seeing not just the thing in front of us but also the threads that connect it to other events. It is impossible for articles to contain every detail that culminated in a specific event, but there is an obligation to at least situate events within a larger context.
Some of this is a matter of education, including self-education, but for many of us it will come down to what we encounter when we seek out news. Beyond simply being aware of a crisis, do we have the correct information to understand what is happening and therefore what needs to be done about it? It is fantastic that the Internet has democratized information, but outlets that were focused on keeping people informed are struggling to stay afloat when faced with competition from platforms designed primarily to extract profit from every online interaction.
Embedded in this challenge is the idea of truth. People who have power present the things that they do as right and the things that their enemies do as wrong. The proverb “until the lion learns to write, tales of hunting will always glorify the victor” points to the reality that much of history is narrative, and narrative is always affected by perspective. For most of world history, its narratives have been produced from the vantage point of those who have power. The rise of the Internet has amplified the demand for more holistic storytelling, from communities that are on the other side of power. Unfortunately, the reaction, particularly from those who stand to lose in a more equal world, appears to be an assault on the idea of truth itself.
The facts of various events are disputed partly because of deliberate choices made by those who build platforms. More of us are getting information from online sources, even as the platforms that connect us to this information deliberately underinvest in systems that would honor the responsibility that comes with bringing people the news. “The news” has become a commodity just like any other, even though it is central to how we perceive and respond to the world. Certainly, this is not a only a problem of social media: Those of us paying attention to the case of the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit against Fox News are noting with horror that such a powerful outlet as Fox continues to treat truth and myth as interchangeable. But what makes the Internet different is the speed and scale at which lies and misinformation spread. How can people be expected to respond collectively if they are being primed to disagree on the basic facts of what is happening?
To be a citizen of the world is to confront the reality that you have likely only consumed the hunter’s side of the story, while justice demands that you sit with the discomfort of hearing the lion’s account. For the media, this creates a weighty responsibility to defend truth and other values that orient people toward a positive shared future. Information abstracted from context and truth is not news—it is “content,” and proper concern for the world cannot be built on content.
We owe each other meaningful witness. Periods of great transformation like the one we are living through require a commitment to truth and fairness from people delivering the news, because these values are often missing from those who wield power. Doing this at a global scale is not a small thing, but I think it is central to helping people see the world and therefore care about it. We owe each other the work of learning the truth about the world we live in and the impact our choices have in creating it.