Wednesday, January 28, 2015


"I would never kill myself"-- but he did.

It’s remarkable how much of our media is based on empathy for pain caused to the brave and innocent -- and then violence on their behalf in retribution.  When I began thinking about this post I was just pondering how much we love catastrophe and suffering, so long it’s second hand.  Then I watched two films and the whole idea of empathy began to shatter.  No longer was it the English teacher’s simple distinction between sympathy, feeling bad for someone, and empathy, feeling what they are feeling.

“Bridgend” is a documentary about a “suicide cluster” of teenagers in a shrinking Welsh town.  An inquiring camera interviews the grieving family and friends, by accident registering a vital, handsome, much-admired young man who declares he would NEVER commit suicide because it would hurt his mum too much.  But then he does it.  Did the pressure of being filmed, of thinking what it would be like to commit suicide, of realizing how much the world was interested in young people who kill themselves, of hearing the expressions of love and yearning for the dead person, actually push him over the edge?  Was it death by media-supported empathy?

There were rational puzzles: the adolescent kids knew each other, more or less.  They were hanged by rolling up their own clothing, not with rope.  They were found hanged kneeling from trees and playground equipment.  The police would say nothing about the cases at all -- total wall.  Sex was never mentioned: not who was sexually active nor the possibility of sexual abuse as little children.  When I looked into the story behind the film, Alex Shoumatoff’s  2009 article was rational and research based.  It looked at the nature of sucide clusters around the world.   

But the film mostly showed weeping people and a walk through the landscape.  John Michael Williams, the director, is revealed at the end, a handsome singer who specializes in sad songs about loneliness and being a misfit.  This is the original puzzle about empathy -- why we are so attracted to tragedy and why for some it kindles sexual interest that's never really acknowledged.

Wu Dunn and Nicholas Kristof

“A Path Appears” is a Nick Kristoff documentary about human trafficking, mostly of American women, and though there are the obligatory emotional testimonies, mostly the approach is rational -- sympathetic, focused on what can be done.   The Chicago police provide an example:  arresting the johns but offering help to the prostitutes.  A group home, that runs a business, explains how the women got their feet under them and take us on a tour of the streets, where both pimps and drug-hooked prostitutes declare they want to stay where they are.  There’s a demonstration for a mom to show her how easy it is to find her trafficked daughter on the Internet and get her back.  (The girl curls up like a puppy against her mom.)  All constantly worry about violent retribution from traffickers and pimps, but it never happens. 

Kristof, composed and cool, makes notes and often refers to his wife, Wu Dunn.  Nevertheless, the tweets that appear after the movie (It's streaming on PBS right now.) talk about love, being totally open, wanting to help.  Kristof uses beautiful young female movie stars as partners, some -- like Ashley Judd -- who are abuse survivors.  The comment responders seem to empathize with the movie stars or WANT to.  They are mostly female.  They want to be “Pretty Woman” and jump over the patterns presented so clearly.  They have no grasp of the economic trafficking of movie stars.  Nor can they see the damage inside the elegant facade.

But then I ran across an even darker aspect of empathy.  I began to see it less as the straightforward “co-consciousness”* in the word of one of my acting resources, and a much deeper mammalian response, not the rat in the tube but the papa prairie vole in the grass who loves his wife and children.

“A paper just published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin provides evidence that feelings of empathy toward a distressed person can inspire aggressive behavior. For some people, at least, feeling another’s pain is insufficient: they also experience the urge to harm the person they are in conflict or competition with.  This linkage was particularly strong for participants with a particular gene variant linked to the neurohormone vasopressin, which has previously been associated with aggressive behavior to defend one’s child or mate.  This is the prairie vole male reaction to threat.”  You can see it on Saturday night in most small town bars.

The experiment in this case was performed on humans using hot sauce as the source of revenge pay-back pain instead of “Fight Church” extreme fighting.  But it is still "unjust" pain triggering such a need to punish that it becomes a new source of pain -- in the process arousing a strong “taste” for violence, mixed with sexual passion.  No one asked about the impact on the belligerent’s love life that night.  

Years ago I heard about a local sports coach who tuned up his high school players by telling them to imagine that the opponent team members had raped their mother and killed their little brother.  They were a winning team, called a “red meat” team because of injuries to themselves and opponents.  This was not empathy.  It was endo-drugs, causing the imagination to release effective drugs within the athlete’s system.  It was teaching them to do that at home as well as on the field.  

Sansa of Game of Thrones is an abuse magnet.

Watching “Game of Thrones” can do the same thing without even moving off the sofa.  We’re so easily hooked.  In real life people might well reject an effort to empathize with them, even if their state is not suffering or anger.  Even if they have nothing to hide from the law or their family.  We’ve all questioned people about why they did something and gotten the frustrating answer,  “I don’t know.”  Which makes us want to know even more.  

Empathy can make a person vulnerable because then others will know what will hurt, what will stir up old emotions, what will release vasopressin.  But dark empathy is a great money-raiser, a path to admiration.  An author, among others, can get trapped between the desire to be rich and famous by revealing sensational subjects -- how we love misery porn!  But on the other hand writing that stuff might mean being attacked by those who have that gene mutation the male prairie voles have.

Queen Elizabeth II has a look at the Throne of Swords.
Does she empathize with the Starks or the Lannisters?

Journalists, esp. the television version, shove the microphone into the faces of those subjected to catastrophe, loss, and trauma, demanding to know “How do you feel?  How do you feel?”  Some families go indoors and refuse to talk.  Others stand and deliver.  Do the journalists go home and weep or do they become callous because it is their job and their bosses will fire them if they don’t do the expected thing.

Even doing this research and thinking has shown a searchlight on my own past.  Suddenly I realize what was going on sometimes under the surface of other people’s lives and that not-knowing meant that I didn’t have to do anything about it.  Didn’t know I COULD do anything about it.  I did act sometimes -- lost jobs because of it.  Didn’t trust the law even when I was working as an officer.  Didn't trust my denominational leaders when I was a minister.

Clearly “empathy” or “co-consciousness”* is an evolved and climax sort of capacity, but the social understanding of how to manage it -- both for individuals and between large categories of people -- has not caught up.  We can't do mind-melds yet.

*  It turns out that "co-consciousness" is a psych technical term referring to split personality.

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