Sunday, November 15, 2015

Empathy's dark side

I had planned to go into this material at some future date.  Sadly the recent terror attacks in Paris has made the content material more relevant, and hence I've decided to interrupt our series exploring memory to cover this.

One of the problems we're often told about the modern world is that we're too connected electronically, but too disconnected emotionally with one another.  We lack empathy for others.

Empathy is important to how social groups work.  It was believed that there were common properties in all mammalian brains (including humans) to deal with emotional processing which was a vital part of enabling mammals to work in packs/tribes.  Emotion allows animals to inter-relate, and take care and protect each other, rather than caring solely to the needs of the self.

So empathy has got to be a good thing, right?  Sadly not, according to recent research by Anneke Buffone and Michael Poulin of the University Of Buffalo.  Like so many things in life, some is beneficial, but too much can lead to aggression and violence, which alarmingly does not have to be directed back at perpetrators of an experienced injustice.

Their research has shown that when some people are witness to Person A who has been the victim of an ordeal, those witnesses can show quite violent and aggressive behaviour.  Now some of that's not too much of a shocker, a lot of such behaviour is often wrapped up as "a desire for justice".  However, their test was set up and showed that such behaviour is readily applied to someone, even when the witness knows that person is nothing to do with Person A.  A disturbing form of "kicking the dog" to vent emotion.

It goes without saying that such behaviour perpetrates other injustices.  And rather than rectify the original problem, it just mimics and replicates the injustices.

With the recent abhorant behaviour of the Islamic State with their executions, and this recent terror attacks, it has really tugged on the heartstrings of many.  It hurts, it feels unjust, vile, reprehensible and there is a desire to "get back" at them - which is completely understandable.  Criminals should be punished.

Where it gets darker is when we just wish to strike back at not just them, but people who share some common attribute - whether their country of origin, the colour of their skin or their religion.  We want someone to pay, what we often care less for is whether the person who pays legitimately is associated with those who did the crime.

We see this all too often.  When I was a child, there was a murder of a paperboy called Carl Bridgewater who was brutally murdered.  The public was outraged, and demanded someone was caught and prosecuted.  In the end the police fabricated evidence against a group of people to appease the public anger.  It didn't matter that the wrong people were prosecuted, as long as someone was.

We see this time and again - a desire to "get someone" to make someone pay for some crime we feel is horrendous.  Within the British justice system, perhaps the Derek Bentley case sums this most effectively.  A British policeman was shot by a minor, so they charged and hung one of his collaborators based on him allegedly uttering the words "let him have it" (it's open to debate over whether that meant "give him the gun" or "shoot him").  

As an adult I've lived through the September 11th attacks, and the London Bombings.  All of which made my blood boil.  In the shadow of September 11th, attacks on the Sikh community escalated, sometimes spilling into murder.  This was despite Sikhs being nothing to do with the Muslim extremist group behind the attacks - but with their distinguishing turbans they were noticeably different and an easy target.

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, with 130 dead, there is a desire for retribution.  Retribution disguised as justice. I have seen countless friends or groups who have expressed a desire to bomb the Middle East into the stone age, and to put every refugee from Syria into a detention camp and ship them home.

Ironically I feel this is exactly what the Islamic State wants - to justify their hate with your hate.  To use any action we might take to justify their action, in a way to recruit future Jihadi Johns to their cause.  They want you to distance yourself from your neighbour, your coworker, that guy who owns a shop, who just happens to have a darker complexion to you.

Those who perpetrated the attacks need to be brought to justice (yes, even killed if that's not possible) as well as those behind the attacks.  But as much as possible we should seek to avoid harm to those innocents in the crossfire - people who are as much victims of groups like the Islamic State.

There was a great line at the end of recent Star Trek films, which I'm going to repeat here.  At the end of Star Trek Into Darkness, Khan had caused the deaths of a lot of people, and to be honest, I really wanted him to die in the end, but instead he was allowed to live.  Here's what Kirk said,

"There will always be those who mean to do us harm. To stop them, we risk awakening the same evil within ourselves. Our first instinct is to seek revenge when those we love are taken from us. But that's not who we are"

We should never forget those who are murdered in such attacks.  It's a positive thing that the deaths of so many does move us - although as many have noted, terrorism is going on at an alarm rate elsewhere in the world, with attacks on this scale weekly, but as it occurs away from the western world, we don't pay it as much attention.

However we should not allow ourselves to be the puppets of terrorists or people within our own society with similarly "simplistic yet reactionary" policies.  That is the way of the lynch mob, seeking vengeance in a misguided belief it is pursuing justice.  It neither honours the memories of the victims or help to bring in a more secure world for us all.

Let us always seek to show why we are civilised, and they are the barbarians.



  1. Thank you for writing this. I am going to share it with as many people as I can.
    Sometimes, people go blind in revenge-hate. If only they took the time to read this..

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