Tag Archives: Empathy

Guns, Death and Compassion

24 Dec

Here’s yet another comment on the Newton school massacre.

This time from me.

And this is the thing: I genuinely don’t understand why we have so much news coverage, so much focus on the victims, so much consideration of how to avoid such an awful event in the future, so many statesman-like speeches and commitments to “do something”.

My question is: what is special about this event?

When yet another child is killed by a US drone in Pakistan (178 in the last 7 years and counting) do we see weeping parents? Do we follow the memorial services and hear messages of condolences from the local politicians and imams? Do we consider what went wrong and how to avoid the same terrible things from happening again? Do we open up ourselves to understanding what it would be like to be in their shoes, to be the grieving mother or the orphaned child?

Do we bollocks. We call it collateral damage. Or even “bug splats”. People say it’s just something that happens in war, something out of our control, they don’t put such a high value on life… or so the ludicrous post-hoc justifications go.

More than 30,000 people are killed by guns in the US every year. Over half of these are suicides. More children have been killed by accident every year than all the mass shootings over the last couple of decades put together. What about these deaths? Why don’t we pay more attention to these?

After September the 11th, I was again shocked at the furore in the media and western societies. “But what about the recent Rwandan genocide“, I thought? When we had a 2 minute silence at the office I found myself wondering: “Why are the people who suffered and died in America so important? We didn’t have a silence for so many other tragedies.” At the same time as the terrible events of September 11th, the holocaust in Democratic Republic of Congo was going on. Between 1997 and 2003 well over 5 million people were murdered, not to mention the rape, torture, and other horrors. I didn’t even read about it until 2002 and I read the papers daily over that period. I’ll just mention that statistic again – 5.4 million people were killed. A familiar sounding figure – close to the number of Jews killed by the Nazis. I’m not making crass comparisons for the sake of a competition here – I’m pointing out that these heart-rending atrocities merit equal attention.

When all those Japanese people died in the 2011 tsunami I felt awful for them. That this story was suddenly eclipsed by the story of the nuclear power station was again inhumane. No one died from radiation poisoning. But once nuclear power got involved, I stopped seeing any mention of the 20,000 people who died from this horror, not to mention the hundreds of thousands more affected by it all. Why was that? Perhaps it was something to do with the fear of nuclear power being stronger than the sympathy for the victims?

When I raise this point, most people realise the greater context, understand the unhealthy media bias, and show some empathy with others in horrendous situations around the world. However, worryingly some small-minded people actually accuse me of being heartless. Is it heartless that I feel some measure of pain, not just when a nice middle class white person dies, but when an impoverished person is killed far away from me in a culture of which I know little? Surely this is the antithesis of heartlessness.

People are people, regardless of where they happen to have been born.

I once read that ‘good and bad’ are defined as how things affect oneself, whereas ‘right and wrong’ are the affects of one’s actions on another. The latter category is also known as morality.

Could it be that people make more of a big deal of issues that affect people who are closer to them in culture, colour and proximity?

I’m no psychologist (and wouldn’t like to judge the motivations of others in this regard) but it’s pretty easy to label this as a selfish attitude.

I wholly understand the underlying fear, but personally, the fear of such things happening to me takes second place to empathy for other people.

As such, I’ll go so far as to say that the current media obsession with the minutia of this particular tragedy actually demonstrates a lack of moral values.

This powerful article, in which I read the above comparison, describes these issues well. At the end of the article a commenter said:

Our Professor told us one day that a newspaper had approached him to commission a piece of research to let them quantifiably determine how newsworthy a story involving fatalities would be. He just told them to divide the number of deaths by the distance in km to the incident. No, I am not joking.

So in conclusion, let’s have some more empathy. And let’s apply that empathy with a bit more equality.


Defining Evil

28 Sep

Nothing is easier than to condemn the evildoer. Nothing is harder than to try and understand them.

– Fyodor Dostoevsky

Following from the previous post on Evil, here are some efforts trying to pin down a definition of evil, most of which I heard on a radio program about the subject:

Professor Alain Turain says that with “evil what is at stake is the destruction of the subject“. He says “pleasure is one possibility, also cruelty, it’s destroying your capacity to be a subject, as an animal, as a thing. A notion of degradation and destruction or the integrity of another.

David Mollet writes “The flaw in the discussion is the product of various assumptions about what an evil act is. It seems to focus on the act itself rather than the attitude of the person committing the act. I would offer a different definition of evil: some people do bad things but don’t think that they are doing a bad thing. These people are not evil. True evil is doing a bad thing while knowing that it’s bad.

What about the sincere person that think they are doing their duty, e.g. Anders Brevik? They would not be called evil by the intention definition, nor would the Nazi camp guard that thinks he’s doing his duty.

So by this definition “Brevik is not evil as he didn’t gain enjoyment from the killing, whereas Che Guevara is quoted as enjoying making the order to fire on his enemies.

Some would then conclude that “pleasure is not a necessary component.” which means we can say that both an intention and an act can be separately categorised as evil.

Also we talk about a distinction between violence and extreme violence.

Smith: “We want to know whether something is just very bad behaviour, gross moral turpitude, or do we need an extra category of evil. It’s definitely something to do with magnitude.

A useful question is: “is there a bigger pattern, a bigger system that corrupts your morality” – pushing towards Zimbardo’s conclusions?

Young: People can “try to ground a notion of evil by appeal to human rights. Human rights is not just a set of laws but part of a universal culture.

Professor Barry Smith suggests: “a separation between act and intention: what are evil intentions? Our intuitions are good at figuring out what an evil act is.” I disagree; it’s interesting that many people share the idea that there is evil but that they don’t agree on what it is.

I say that morals are obviously relative from which it follows that evil must also be relative. This explains why there is not a succinct definition on which people can agree.

Peter Young, a Professor of Criminology, says people often fall back on the holocaust when relativism is brought up and most agree that this was “evil”. But there were then, and are now, some people who think otherwise, thus it is still not an absolute.

Young says that “criminologists also don’t like to talk about evil. Using evil is a way to get away from relativism.

Michel Wieviorka (a Professor of Sociology who recently published a book called Evil) discusses the example of Anders Brevik who killed 79 people in Norway. “In looking for an explanation, we look to sociological factors: the political discourse of muslims and immigration, etc. But this is not enough. Then we look at psychological factors: let us understand the psychologies of the person involved, but of course this is still not enough.There is some mystery in what we try to understand. In the same circumstance one will commit a murder, another will not, and we try to understand this.”Young said “people try to stop the explanation by saying look, that’s just evil.

To understand you have to express empathy. Is this a limit to social science?

Wieviorka: “the more you help, the more you explain, the more you can help to fight against crime, it means that how will you fight something that you don’t explain? How do you fight racism for instance if you don’t try to understand why people become racist. You are not born racist you become racist. So if you don’t try to explain, maybe you need some empathy to understand the people that are racist, but because you understand does not mean that you don’t want to fight.

So is evil even a useful concept?

Wieviorka says “evil is not a concept readily adopted by sociologists. This is because religion gets in the way. It’s not a sociological category. It’s a non-explanation – it’s moral, political, religious. Not a tool to use in order to understand better, but an object in itself. Using evil becomes saying it’s something in itself, it’s not a human issue, it’s nature or its genes.

Laurie Taylor: “it’s useful as something to express extreme intolerance of certain types of behaviour but not nail it to a particular type of phenomenon. So do we need this category? Yes, we do want it, but it’s the target of explanation, not the explanation in itself. It’s a mish-mash of ideas and definitions. We can say the behaviour is what we want to explain.

A more useful paradigm than evil here.


14 Sep

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

– Aristotle

When somebody does something bad, say killing a child, genocide or rape, people tend to call them a monster or “evil”.

It doesn’t explain anything; in fact it is used to shut down any effort at explaining such behaviour.

It’s as if giving them this label explains everything. The implication is that there’s something intrinsically wrong with the person that has committed this act.

I say calling someone evil is a cop out.

It implies they’re just made that way so they will never change and we should just do away with them. It’s saying that punishment and vengeance is the only way and there is no point in trying to understand and hence rehabilitate the person.

There’s a dangerous de-humanising element here. And this means it sets them apart from the rest of us.

There’s an issue with empathy: it’s not easy to understand why someone has done something that on face value seems heartless and goes against our deeply held moral codes. But why this fear? It requires a level of empathy that not everyone is willing to use.

To empathise is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and to try to think what they thought, and to feel what they felt. To empathise is to consider yourself committing that act.

And this is the problem.

It’s a sign of maturity that a person can hold someone else’s point of view in their mind without agreeing with it.

To empathise also means to admit that you could commit the same act. To accept that we all have a side that we don’t like. The thing is, we are all capable of heinous acts. Study after study proves this to be true. People think “oh no, not me, I couldn’t possibly do something like that, I’m better than that”. Alas that’s just wishful thinking.

Psychologists Professor Philip Zimbardo and Doctor Stanley Milgram have clearly shown how “normal” people can be made to commit “evil” acts. If you find this difficult to accept, read about the infamous Stanford Prison experiment or the Milgram experiment.

If we accept that in some situations, with certain influences, we are all capable of very bad acts, then the question is what are those situations and what are those motivations, and how do we protect against them? To do otherwise is simply idiocy.

The good thing is that there’s a corollary to this conclusion. Zimbardo describes the ways in which people can be influenced to do “good” things against these forces, people he calls heroes. In fact, Zimbardo has set up a project in America and is doing some great work educating people “to overcome the natural human tendency to watch and wait in moments of crisis” so they can “act heroically on behalf of those in need“.

More evil in the next post.

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