I was thinking about this before I saw this video, which means that the subject is “out there” in the collective mind. How much can we stand to “feel” each other? We talk about "compassion fatigue."
The erosion of empathy: Simon Baron Cohen at TEDxHousesofParliament
Part of what I try to do with these blogs is to return to things I thought I “knew” and rethink them, given new research and my own inner changes. The TED Talk above begins with a still photo of Nazi researchers trying to find out how long a human being can live in very cold water. I’ve known about this kind of "research" all my life, thanks to my father’s “Police Gazette,” but I never visualized it being like this. I thought they put their human “white rat” in a separate cell with a door in the window and watched them die from outside that door -- or maybe went back later to see if they were dead yet. But this photo is intimate, hands-on, carefully monitoring vital signs as though they were trying to save him, but then they didn’t. And he had not volunteered.
I didn’t know that lack of empathy could be so intimate. It makes me think of early accounts of Indians torturing missionary priests -- all the while studying their faces closely to see how they reacted, these strange non-people. And yet not long ago I drowned a mouse with the same impassive interest. It had been skittering around the house for weeks and both cats had been still-hunting, but they tend to nod off. Finally Squibbie nailed the little beast and mauled it until I found it, barely alive. It would have died by itself fairly soon, but I thought it would be more humane to finish it off sooner. Rather than step on it or hit it, I drowned it in the bathroom sink, warm water, holding it down with the nail brush because otherwise it tended to float. There was air in its fur and a surprising amount of air in its lungs, but it died in seconds without even moving much.
At the same time the smallest of the feral kittens growing up in my backyard appeared with a bad limp, barely able to put weight on that leg. Probably he fell off the ladder to the loft in the back garage. There’s no way I could do anything for him since he’s too spooky to catch. So I put out food. As usual. At the same time I decided it was time to remove access to that loft, but the ladder is behind a pile of windfall I’ve been saving to saw into stovewood. I just bought an electric chainsaw since it became clear that I no longer have the arm-power to saw it all up. Yesterday was one of those golden fall days and I spent it removing the cardboard I’ve been saving for ten years, esp. the boxes that appliances (file cabinets, mostly) came in. They were on top of the wood. Now I’m where I can saw up the wood, but the cats are so freaked by my activity that they’re gone. So am I helping the kitten or not? Even if I could catch him, I have no money for a vet and, anyway, cats heal by themselves. But it’s a long painful time for one small gray cat.
Two people could live through the same events and not experience it in anything like the same way. I’m very intolerant on this subject. I’m proud -- too proud -- of my capacity to “feel with” others. It was the stock in trade of the kind of minister I wanted to be. (Some of them are cold fish who use the pulpit as a shell.) I’m good enough at it to sometimes be buckled over with shared pain, but that can seem like a form of hubris. What’s harder is to share numb despair, empty unfeeling un-humanness. But shouldn’t we be trying to feel what the Nazi experimenters felt? How else can we figure out what the hell was going on in their minds?
No one wants to know. We don’t care. They are outside the pale. Inhuman. We distance them through that cell door window. Evil. The main defense against our feelings against them, which are not the same as our feelings about what they did (and someone somewhere must be doing today, maybe to a cat), Not Knowing. It’s not just that we don’t want to be offended, but also that the glass window might become a mirror where we might see ourselves.
Now I’ll go in the other direction. I am also proud of my ability to be tough when it is justified. It was the stock-in-trade of being an animal control officer to be tough, not so much in terms of killing animals but in terms of seeing clearly when they were suffering and nailing the cause. The worst cases overwhelmed me; for instance, the puppy that tripped a Vietnam-style napalm bomb when it raided a garbage can. Could easily have been a human child.
Empathy and denial are intertwined: knowing, denying that we know (and from the inside, not just as an abstract concept), and the terror of the abyss of unknowability. It shouldn’t be surprising that ministers and teachers can drink a little too much. Empathy means opening up to pain and joy. When it is done intensely on a stage or professionally when facing students, there’s a loneliness in it. Oh, yes. Writing, too. A little numbness, a little denial, makes enough room to create art, which expresses what is known -- maybe too well -- in a form accessible to others -- maybe.
Bit-by-bit empathy is investigated by scientific experiment with startling and worrying results. Evil (which I believe is real but human), cognitive empathy versus affective empathy (responding with an appropriate emotion: like compassion), inborn capacity for either kind of empathy; social forces that diminish empathy, like, obedience to authority; ideology; resentful deprivation; in-group/out-group dehumanizing stereotypes. All these are part of the complex. Overwhelmingly, the big force is childhood neglect and abuse. We’ve known this for a long time. We do nothing about it. They’re all feral kittens to us.
OVER empathy does not serve us all that well. Writhing in agony when other people writhe in agony does not address the cause. One does not want one’s surgeon weeping into the incision. Sentimentality that extends emotional empathy to beings other than humans is a major dilemma: some animals must be killed. We don’t want meat-packing plants full of sociopaths. We can’t all be vegans. But we can make sure that imposed death is clean and dignified. We can prevent much casual cruelty and probably encourage less stony indifference. Many today value the lives of animals more than the lives of other people.
How much should children be shielded from being over-empathic? When I was little, we went on my mother’s college biology field trip to the coast. My brothers, ten and eight, became absorbed in prying starfish off the rocks. The creatures have a thousand feet and they cling so tightly that prying them off means tearing off those attachments. As a superior twelve-year-old, I challenged them about how those starfish must be suffering. I think I marked them for life, which is what I intended. I’m a cruel bitch in streaks. The result on their part was a kind of paralysis, right on into enlistment in the Marines. I don’t know what would have happened if they had gone into combat.
I don’t know what would happen if I went into combat. Maybe boys are just naturally more soft-hearted than girls. Some people refuse to ever believe anyone can feel what they feel: partly a matter of preserving their special uniqueness (which they might feel would be diluted if someone else shared it) and partly a need to be unknown as a self-protection. They do not want it known how soft-hearted they are. Like kittens, they puff up and walk stiff-legged.