It is not surprising that, the world over, people are concerned about the 230 teenage girls abducted in Northern Nigeria. Although this incident has happened tens of thousands of miles away from the centres of economic and media power, everyone from Michelle Obama to girls in South African schools have been caught by the story and want to show their concern. And in the age of social media adding the ‘hash tag’ #bringbackourgirls has become the recommended act of protest.
Solidarity is a key virtue in Catholic Social teaching – taking an interest in the needs of people not like us and making their concerns our concerns. The reason why solidarity matters is that we as humans are naturally tempted to be more concerned about people who are close to us or like us – I prioritise my family over other people, my nation over foreigners, my ‘race’ over strangers. Breaking through this is the starting point of that most famous of parables – the Good Samaritan who reached across cultural divides to help the person in distress.
But note that though he started with a sentiment of fellow-feeling, he didn’t finish there: he carried on and took action. And the action that he took involved risk and sacrifice and financial cost to him. Does # really make the same demands on us?
In a globalised world, in which we know as much about social problems in Nigeria as we do about ones on our doorstep, the starting point of solidarity is made much easier. How could we not have fellow-feeling when we see photos of these girls or videos of their grieving families? Especially when we are encouraged in that fellow-feeling by media campaigns, social fashion and even announcements at church? But how much do we contribute with our Tweets or our facebook postings or our on-line petitions? And even if we walked in a march or waved a placard what is the risk or sacrifice or financial cost involved there?
I felt very uncomfortable watching the leading ladies of the ANC Women’s League protesting – on the TV news – about the abducted girls. It is right that they should care. But I don’t recall them protesting so vociferously about the way which their own party has failed ‘our girls’ by not providing education that will get them jobs, or clinics that will keep them healthy, or policing that will protect them from rape. And wasn’t this the same ANC Women’s League that a few years ago was silent when a high-profile ANC leader was accused of rape and admitted to having sex with a woman half his age?
Of course, we should show solidarity but solidarity demands real action not just feelings of empathy. There is little that we can do that will make a difference to the plight of the Nigerian girls (sadly). But we can act in our own communities to read with the girl who is struggling at school, or to offer a lift to the young woman walking vulnerably along a lonely road, or to help the woman trapped in domestic work to get some qualifications. But that demands a lot more from us than just #.