With whom do we ‘stand in solidarity’? Whose tragedy or misfortune strikes the core of our empathy? Whose injustice causes our outrage? And how fair is that?

Derived from the French solidarité, the word ‘solidarity’ is usually used to describe some form of bond, alliance, community or fellowship that arises from common goals, interests and interdependencies. Solidarity signifies some unanimity or like-mindedness among the members of a group as well as their mutual responsibility and support.  It comprises feelings and attitudes (we experience ‘a sense of solidarity’) as well as actions (we ‘stand in solidarity’ or ‘act in solidarity’).

Solidarity constitutes one of the core social values, a virtue, an established norm the violation of which calls for sanctions. This is why we praise our children for showing solidarity with their bullied peers and highly admire those who exercise solidarity regardless of the self-denial, danger or sacrifice it might require. This is why abandoning of friends, colleagues or neighbors who are in need is likely to meet open disapproval or even condemnation. This is also why the refusal of some European countries to share the burden of accommodating the huge number of refugees fleeing their homes in search for a better, safer life can be interpreted as a ‘failure in the duty of solidarity’ and inspires calls for enforcement.

Acts of solidarity – formal and informal, organized and spontaneous, in the form of material but also moral support – are not necessarily limited to a specific, narrowly defined community. Our generosity, reflected among others, in philanthropic donations, time spent on volunteering, involvement in (on-line) activism and grass-root movements show our ability to broaden the scope of our solidarity and offer it to distant others.

Nevertheless, solidarity also has its shadow sides. Think, for example, about a conflict of loyalties, when our solidarity with one community entails disloyalty to another. Consider, furthermore, how unevenly we distribute our solidarity between the various unknown others. Think, for example, about the moral outrage and the many remarkable gestures of solidarity that followed terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels and other cities of Europe. How does this conspicuous ‘standing in solidarity’ compare to our passing-over one of the most lethal terrorist attacks a bit further away – in Mogadishu (Somalia)? Think also about the recent world-wide wave of solidarity for and among sexually assaulted women (#MeToo). How does it compare to the rather modest popular support for women at risk of female genital mutilation (FGM), many of whom live in our societies, some as our neighbours or colleagues?

Solidarity is a moral issue. Exercising solidarity (or refraining from it) involves moral choices; sometimes may even entail taking sides: With whom do we ‘stand in solidarity’? Whose tragedy or misfortune strikes the core of our empathy? Whose injustice causes our outrage? Our priority usually goes to those whom we consider close – geographically or socially – those with whom we believe to be seated in the same boat. It sounds logical – solidarity with the whole world population is impossible. But how fair is that?

Dorota Lepianka
Utrecht University