President Obama leaves office in two days. For many, he was a man who fervently supported the rights of women, who upheld fatherhood as a test of character and who eloquently presented liberalism in historic parallels to Abraham Lincoln. He championed LGBTQ+ rights and didn’t rely on Machiavellian power moves or dynastic progression to ascend to the presidency.
From the standpoint of this columnist, Obama retained a godlike status. In letters from his time at Columbia, our President appears frighteningly precocious, deeply engrossed in literary riffs and identity cross sections. He speaks of physical asceticism and political theory, hazarding challenges against a fatalism “born out of the relation between fertility and death.” Two decades later, on the campaign trail, Obama would personally write speeches that spurred ideological tides in cities from Berlin to Chicago. He put his own prose into action.
For many, the power of Obama’s persona has matched his political success. He rebounded the nation from a catastrophic recession, passed the Affordable Care Act, repealed “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”, reversed Bush-era torture policies, green-lighted the Navy SEAL operation that killed Osama bin Laden and withdrew ground troops from Iraq. From 2008 to 2011, favorable opinion toward the United States rose in 10 of 15 countries surveyed by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, with an average increase of 26 percent. And he was well-loved at home.
But in 2011, Syria plunged into a civil war that the Obama administration grossly mishandled. Obama did not deliver on his promise to instigate U.S. military action after Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad used sarin gas that killed 1,500 innocent civilians, including 400 children, in a suburb outside of Damascus. Obama also ignored genocide in Aleppo, where thousands of residents died from Russian barrel bomb attacks on hospitals, homes and schools.
Obama is not the first to fail in the face of genocide. Franklin Roosevelt ignored the Holocaust, Bill Clinton neglected Rwanda and George W. Bush sidelined Darfur. To understand why elected officials — let alone people — overlook mass slaughters, one must understand the psychology of large numbers and political isolationism.
During the mid-19th century, E. H. Weber and Gustav Fechner developed a psychophysical theory in which people’s ability to detect changes in a stimulus rapidly decreases as the magnitude of the stimulus increases — compassion fatigue, more or less. Known today as Weber’s law, this theory evidences itself in our mental representation of numbers. For example, doesn’t the value difference between one and two seems greater than the value difference between eight and nine?
This process, “psychological numbing”, can explain why people are more flustered by 10 deaths than 10,000. In 1997, Paul Slovic demonstrated that study respondents valued saving 9,000 lives in a smaller population more than saving 10 times as many lives in a larger population. Nature writer Annie Dillard touched upon this phenomenon, stating: “There are 1,198,500,000 people alive now in China. To get a feel for what this means, simply take yourself — in all your singularity, importance, complexity and love — and multiply by 1,198,500,000. See? Nothing to it.” Nonprofits and rescue organizations avoid psychological numbing by asking for donations using a single-sufferer template instead of listing generic statistics. People donate more to one sick face than to one sick village.
Unfortunately, psychological numbing is so innate that it contributes to government groupthink and constantly underlies humanitarian decisions. Combining this ubiquitous phenomenon with Obama’s political isolationism in the Middle East most likely yielded a timid policy in Syria that left the remaining citizens of Aleppo struggling for their lives.
At the end of the day, liberal elites at Yale have to accept that our Obama — an Obama who uplifted the marginalized in America and made change in our country believable — was the same Obama who let thousands of Syrian civilians die from missiles directed by Assad, Russia and Iran. Progressive circles are becoming sentimental toward our president’s achievements when we should be caustic to his mistakes. Doing so with nonpartisan clarity would teach us political lessons down the line, girding us for the worst atrocities Trump might let slide. It is our duty to be honest about how thousands died in besieged Aleppo.
Isaac Amend is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .