Lack of Empathy: Callousness & Distancing
--Suketa Mehta, Maximum City
Callousness, Hardness, Moral Numbing, Indifference
A very sad thing happened while we were there---to everyone. It happened slowly and gradually so no one noticed when it happened. We began slowly and with each death and every casualty until there were so many deaths and so many wounded, we started to treat deaths and loss of limbs with callousness, and it happens because the human mind can’t hold that much suffering and survive.
-Glover p50, quoting Jeff Needle
Glover p. 260
After the death of his first wife, Yekaterina, in 1908, Stalin said:
‘ This creature softened my heart of stone. She died and with her died my last warm feelings for people.’
This hardness made it possible for Stalin to introduce the death penalty for children as young as twelve. It enabled him to initial long lists of death sentences, including the names of people he knew. On lists of people about to be tried, he could write ‘shoot all 138 of them’ On one day in December 1938 Stalin and Molotov signed for the shooting of 3, 167 people. After such days, the two of them sometimes went to a film together.
There is a continuum of callousness, from a willed hardheartedness where one feels the awfulness of the evil one is committing, but steels oneself to ignore it in order to continue to do it to total indifference-- complete numbing of empathy. The kids who did the Columbine shooting are often described as indifferent--completely "disconnected" or "alienated"—they seem to have felt nothing as they shot their classmates. Recklessness that shows disregard for what happens to others can also be a form of indifference.
Nadezhda Mandelstam observed how in Stalinist Russia, effective efforts were made to discredit traditional morality—even such fundamental moral beliefs as "thou shalt not kill." She noticed that people were "turning into wood—a process that comes over those who lose their sense of values."
"It's just like they say--once you chop down a tree, it becomes easy to chop down the tree. You know? And that's how it is with shootin' a gun. And that's how it is with 187's [police code for homicide], to be honest with you. Once you take somebody's life and you make it through--you know what I'm sayin'?--without a nervous breakdown, then it ain't hard to do no mo'. It's like it becomes a habit,like."
Callousness, hardness, and moral numbing can all be assisted by distancing and dehumanizing.
Distancing & dehumanizing
Go to Atrocities
Atrocities are easier to commit if respect for the victims can be neutralized. For this reason, humiliation handed out by those with power can be ominous. The link between humiliation and atrocity is often found. . .
Distancing can suppress both
normal sympathy:the awareness and knowledge that one is killing other human beings and
normal compassion:the desire to do something to prevent or stop it. .
Types of distancing:
- humiliation & degradation
- A belief in one's personal superiority to others
- racism & sexism & nationalism
- seeing others as merely a member of some group, such as "the enemy," rather than as human beings like oneself thus unacceptably narrowing the scope of one's moral universe.As the Army of the Soviet Union fought its way toward Berlin toward the end of WWII, Red Army general Maslov described German children crying as they searched desperately for their parents in a blazing town. "What was surprising," wrote Maslov, "was that they were crying in exactly the same way as our children cry." Few Soviet soldiers or officers had imagined Germans as human beings. After Nazi propaganda had dehumanized the Slavs into Untermenschen [subhuman beings], Soviet revenge propaganda had convinced its citizens that all Germans were ravening beasts."Antony Beevor, The Fall of Berlin, p. 199
In Weapons of the Spirit, Pastor Thiess is asked to sum up the essence of Christianity. He says:
"Love thy God with all thy heart and love thy neighbor as thyself"
During WWII, the organization of young German people known as the Hitler Youth were taught this version:
"Love thy country above all else, and love thy ethnic fellow as thyself."
Pastor Thiess said that the message of Christianity is to love "thy neighbor": this refers to all people, not just those who are literally our neighbors. But the Nazis perverted this idea and in doing so they narrowed the moral universe down to their "ethnic fellows," that is fellow "Aryans" (a mythical white Nordic race that the Nazis believed to be superior to all others). This allowed the Nazis to treat Jews (who were not Aryans according to the Nazis) differently than they would treat their fellow Aryans. So while "fellow Aryans" deserved the full protection and concern of morality, Jews did not: they could be murdered because they were not "humans" to the Nazis: they were not part of the Nazis' moral universe.
Marion v. B. Pritchard remembers the Germans showing the anti-Semitic film The Eternal Jew at school:
We sat through it, laughed out loud and thought it was ridiculous. But what impressed me in retrospect was that one of the students said to me the next day, "You know, that was an awful movie, scurrilous, and I don’t believe a word of it, but what it has done is divide us into ‘them’ and ‘us.’ I wish it didn’t but now I look at people and say, ‘Aha, you’re Jewish." Fogelman, p. 46
"There is a stark difference between the way the Saudi government treats its own citizens and the way it treats foreign workers.’There is a huge population that is not thought of as human at all."
--Kaled Abou El Fadl, UCLA Law Professor, as told to Lawrence Wright in "The Silent Kingdom," The New Yorker, Jan 5, 2004.
Linguistic: racial epithets, demeaning names (like calling a grown black man by his first name when he has to call you "Mr. X"; or calling Vietnames "dinks" and "slopes" or Iraqis "towelheads" or "camel jockeys")By early 1939 Beria became head of the Soviet secret police "he inherited a gulag slave-labor force of several million souls. "Camp dust," he liked to call them."
Physical distancing as a means of psychological distancing:
being far away from the person you harm
using technology instead of personal means
In the film, The War at Home, an American bomber pilot discusses how distancing allowed him to complete numerous bombing missions over Vietnam with equanimity. He dropped those bombs from high in the sky and so he never saw the people he killed and maimed. Abstractly he knew that if he were doing his job right, people were being killed, but he didn't have to see them and thus kept that knowledge abstract and without any connection with his normal human empathy.
Men in the trenches were much more liable to feel pity for their opponents. After all, front-line soldiers knew that the men in the opposing trenches were cold and hungry, cannon-fodder just like themselves. Womenfolk back home—scared witless about the safety of their lovers, husbands, and brothers, yet unable to externalize their terror through aggressive "hitting back" at the enemy—responsed with profound verbal hatred and aggressiveness agains the Hun, Nazi, or other pernicious foe---Joanna Bourke, LA Times, 10/26/03