Adrian Tan - Reflections on The Tsunami
Delivered 25 Feb 2005


  1. How do people react to the tsunami? What thoughts do they think? What questions do they ask themselves? Why do they think or feel any of these things?
    • Tsunami and disbelief
      • Tsunami and the sense of the real
    • Other possible reactions
      • Tsunami and carpe diem
      • Tsunami and moral imperatives
      • Tsunami and idealism
    • Tsunami and final reactions
  2. Tsunami and September 11

    • Different reasons to explain why people might care more about the latter
    • Some comments on the extent to which people can care
  3. Tsunami and belief change

    • Why do people feel despondent?
    • If a morality changes, does this mean that the new morality is better than the old?


This is going to be very very scattered. This is basically some general reflections, loosely connected, on the tsunami, out of which, hopefully, there will be some themes and questions that you might be interested to discuss.

I'm later going to talk about the tsunami and September 11, then the tsunami and the way it might have changed people's beliefs. But firstly, I'm going to talk about the reactions that a hypothetical person might go through. Now, these are partly things that I felt, and partly things that I think a lot of people might feel. And what I'm interested in is why anyone feels any of these particular things, or thinks any of these particular thoughts.

Tsunami, Disbelief and Other Reactions

Well, you're told the news, and the first thing you feel is disbelief, right -- it's out of the blue. The tsunami already in some way violates your sense of what's probable and improbable, of what can happen and what can't. And it's also the sort of thing that you wish were not true. So the obvious question is, where does this disbelief come from? What was the belief or the sense of norm that was violated?

Well, it might be that the sheer scale and the horror are difficult to wrap your head around, and are so far removed from everyday experience in that respect that it's difficult to believe. But there are other thoughts, rational and irrational, that might go through your head. You might say to yourself, Can tsunamis just arise like that, in 2004, with no seismologist aware of them? Can 20,000 people (because it was initially 20,000 people) -- can 20,000 people be swept out to sea while I go through what feels like a normal day -- wouldn't my day have felt different? You might ask, in surprise, does history just happen like this, just turn up? Or you might even ask, particularly if you're religious, how can something this senseless occur in an ordered universe -- at Christmas?

I think that if you want to examine where your disbelief came from, what belief or what senses of normal were being violated, then one place to start might be to examine what gave rise to these questions, and what assumptions lie behind them.

So you feel disbelief, and you might have any number of thoughts, rational and irrational, go through your head in connection with that disbelief, then you go to the TV or the news websites, and you're reading through, looking for confirmation. But what sort of evidence would you need? There's lots of data there on the basis of which you might reasonably surmise that the event is real, but what would make the event feel real? Does it even feel real now, four weeks later? Couldn't it all be an elaborate media hoax?

Part of the reason it doesn't feel real, surely, is that there is no significance to you. Part of what you're doing, as you're going through the news websites, is trying to get a handle on, trying to digest the significance to you. You're reading through with the sense that something important has happened. And, again, it may be somewhat surprising that the ripples don't in fact reach you, that so many people could vanish in an instant, and all of your own world be unaffected.

Other possible reactions. You might be very conscious of how small your own life seems in comparison, how petty your everyday worries and desires and obsessions; and you might think about what it would mean if it were all swept away. And you perhaps feel guilty over how you're wasting your time. So here, as with September 11, there is a brief flush of carpe diem, a brief moment of urgency given to life.

And another possible reaction: you want to sort out the moral imperatives: what should I do in this situation, do I have to help, how much do I have to help? And the capacity of the human heart is not unlimited. This is a practical question. "How much money will you give, if any?" and "How much time will you give?". I'll talk a little more on this topic later, but I just want to flag it now.

And a final reaction I want to mention: tsunami and idealism. The thing is, I'm skeptical anyone's response is pure. I think it's the norm for people to feel guilty over how little they feel, particularly given the sense of disbelief the tsunami might give rise to. And it may in part be a response to the guilt that people adopt a public face of enthusiasm about donating.

Regardless whether the enthusiasm is real or faked, I think it's a sort of fire that spreads. It might become more real. Everyone's talking about it, and there's commonality of feeling, and there might even be a moment when you want to put it all on the line, a moment that's not so different from war time, when people are infected by the fervor to enlist. The nobility of the cause seems unquestionable.

It's striking then, given the extent of the idealism, that it dies. I'm now going to remark on final reactions to the tsunami. The questions I'm interested in are how does this concern about the tsunami die and when?

Well, the beginnings of an answer are that other reactions and desires kick in. The story fades from the media. People become bored of talking of it. Volunteers grumble at the hours they've spent on the phone. People asked for donations will already have donated enough. And it doesn't help that celebrities cynically milk the event for their own PR.

It dies partly because of the initial disbelief. The event that never felt real in the first place never felt real in the last place, you never wrapped your head around it, and there is a comfort in this, an excuse.

And the fact is that 20,000 might have elicited disbelief, but the body count keeps growing, and there's a point when the numbers numb you. You're shocked when you're told that it might reach 80,000, but you're silent when you're told it exceeds 150,000. There's a point when the count goes too high, when you can't digest what it means, and you've got no echo in your everyday experience of 200,000 or 300,000 or 400,000 people gone -- more people than you'll know in your life -- it's beyond your experience, it's not something you can try to comprehend without going mad. Indifference, which is the final reaction to the tsunami, is partly a protective response.

Tsunami and September 11

Now some brief comments on tsunami and September 11.

It may be the case that a lot of Americans care more about the World Trade Centre than about the tsunami. If this is true, why is it true? Why do people care more about those who died at the WTC, quite apart from other significances of the attack?

Well, perhaps because the WTC is closer to home and more relevant? Because the World Trade Centre feels more real; and it's easier to wrap your head around a couple thousand people dying than 200,000? Because these are their own people? Because the particular manner of dying on September 11 was portrayed as more grisly than on Boxing Day? Because civilized people died in those two towers, and savages died in Indonesia? Or because crashing the aeroplanes was the work of active malignance, and there's someone to hate, whereas a tidal wave is impersonal, a matter of nature or fate or God?

Well, I think these are all possible factors, but there's one theme here that I'd like to pick up on. I'm only going to make some brief remarks here.

It's a falsehood that anyone can love everyone, unless you sufficiently water down the concept of "love". One of the biggest obstacles to loving everyone is that the concept of love usually involves an active component. It's not just a matter of what you feel, but of what you do and are prepared to do. Loving a person is surely more than being generally well-disposed to them, or behaving towards them according to a standard of courtesy. It must involve thinking about how you can make their life better, and going out out of your own way to do so.

Time and energy and resources limit your capacity to do this for everyone. And what complicates the question of how wide to draw the circle of care, the rapidly thinning circle of what we care about and should care about, is the question of how deep to draw it. With any situation of care, whether towards tsunami victims, or your own family, or your god or your country or your species, there seems to be the ever-present and impossible question of how much is enough, because there's always more you can do.

So explaining in terms of this concept of circle of care why WTC beats tsunami... Well, basically, yourself, your family, and your friends are the most valuable and relevant persons to you, and you're taught to care for them, and there are implicit contracts you make with them. Whereas, for the person on the other side of the world, apart from the difficulty of caring, and the lack of relevancy to you and contract you've made with them, there are even positive reasons not to care.

For instance, though this may be a horrible thing to say, in some places there is too much brutality and suffering and injustice, and life is too cheap. At some point, wading waistdeep in blood and misery, you throw up your hands. And you say "I'm sorry, but there's nothing I can do." A limited circle of care, and an us vs them mentality, make practical sense.

Tsunami and Belief Change

Finally some brief comments on the tsunami and beliefs in general.

Now the tsunami made a lot of people despair. There's a national hotline for depressed people to call, and the HR departments of a lot of companies have offered their employees counselling.

When you're thinking about the concept of despair, you think, for instance, about being depressed, you think about the feelings associated with hope disappearing, you think about the value and point of things fading.

But there is also a belief component. Despair is also something to do with probability. It's something to do with a future event x that is not possible, or is highly unlikely, and probably you used to think that x was possible or likely. And it's also something to do, obviously, with not desiring not-x.

Now, sadness can have different sources. You can feel sadness out of sympathy for someone's pain for instance. But despair seems usually to involve that element of belief, that element of probability.

Well, why would a tsunami make you despair? Why would it change your estimations of probability? Why would it make good things improbable or bad things probable?

Now, on the one hand, the tsunami creates undesirable but likely future outcomes: you don't want these wretched people to die of disease and hunger. But obviously it's also possible that if it made you despair then it killed some hope of yours or changed some belief? -- A belief, for instance, about the order of things or about God, or about your own significance, or about the stability of the world, or the goodness of the world, or the rightness of how you're spending your time in it.

So, all I'm saying here is claiming that if you're faced with someone who's depressed after the tsunami, then if you wanted to understand that depression you might ask about what belief has been violated; it's not only a matter, for example, of looking into their shock or their sympathy.

Now, some comments on beliefs in general. Beliefs should be distinguished, to some extent, from behaviour. If your behaviour changes in front of a tsunami, or in the hour before a comet hits earth, this doesn't necessarily mean your beliefs change. Consider, for instance, your moral beliefs. Maybe you still hold the same system of rights and wrongs as before -- it's just that, now, you can't bring yourself to follow that system. Who ever said that moralities were easy?

But assume that your moral beliefs do change, not just your behaviour. Does this somehow demonstrate the inadequacy of your previous morality? Does it demonstrate, for instance, that your previous morality was more fanciful than factual?

Well, I'm going to suggest that the answer is possibly yes, and possibly no. Possibly yes for obvious reasons -- because maybe you did hold beliefs that simply weren't true, and this partly explains your initial shock when you first learnt about the tsunami.

But possibly no, your previous morality wasn't necessarily inadequate or ill-founded, for at least these two reasons.

For one thing, belief is a psychological state, and doesn't necessarily correspond to truth. Maybe the beliefs that you hold after experiencing the tsunami aren't true. Because it happens all the time that people change beliefs, change what they consider to be true, for no rational reason. As they approach death, some people find they now believe in an afterlife, and others find that they can't believe in it. Or consider an example like Winston in 1984, who's tortured into believing that one and one are not two. So change of belief, by itself, doesn't demonstrate the falsity of earlier beliefs.

Secondly, though now I'm being very speculative, and there are plenty of people who would disagree... Secondly, it may be that all moralities are systematizations of intuitions, and that there is no objective component, and there is no logical foundation for intuitions. If this sort of relativist position is true, then no morality is rationally more valid than any other, and all moralities are situation-dependent.

And if this is true, then it may be justifiable, for instance, to hold one morality for wartime and another for peace, or one morality for the government and another for the governed. And if your previous intuitions were swept away by a tsunami, well this wouldn't mean that the intuitions you're left with are more correct.


So, that's about all I had to say. Basically I made some claims about the course of the thoughts and feelings that a person might experience after learning about the tsunami. I made some comments on the nature of love and care, partly in response to the question of why some people might care more about the deaths at the world trade centre than about the deaths in the tsunami. And I made some comments about why the tsunami might cause some people to be depressed, and about the nature of belief changes induced by the tsunami.