We all pos­sess a nat­u­ral em­pa­thy for other hu­man be­ings. But once we lose that, it is easy for in­jus­tice to flour­ish. The so­lu­tion? Tell hu­man­is­ing sto­ries

The Guardian Weekly - - SPORT - Owen Jones

Al­most all hu­man be­ings have the ca­pac­ity for em­pa­thy. Every­one has the po­ten­tial to be at least trou­bled, or feel gen­uine an­guish, about the suf­fer­ing of other hu­man be­ings. We recog­nise that, like us, other hu­mans have in­se­cu­ri­ties and am­bi­tions; we fall in love and have re­la­tion­ships that end in heart­break; we worry about our chil­dren’s well­be­ing; we say things we re­gret; we’re oc­ca­sion­ally kept awake by fears or wor­ries; and we try to im­press peo­ple we look up to. We see things in oth­ers that we see in our­selves, and that binds us to­gether. But what hap­pens when we no longer see a spe­cific group as hu­man?

In Men Against Fire – the penul­ti­mate episode in English satirist and broad­caster Char­lie Brooker’s ex­tra­or­di­nary new drama series Black Mir­ror – sol­diers are sent to mow down fanged, shriek­ing zom­bie-like “roaches”. They rel­ish slaugh­ter­ing them – they even de­rive sex­ual kicks from do­ing it. But the vic­tims are ac­tu­ally hu­man. It emerges that the sol­diers have had brain im­plants in­serted that – as far as they can see – trans­form their des­per­ate civil­ian tar­gets into blood­cur­dling mon­sters de­serv­ing of no com­pas­sion. As a mil­i­tary psy­chi­a­trist tells a soldier dis­traught at dis­cov­er­ing the truth: “Hu­mans are gen­uinely em­pa­thetic as a species. We don’t want to kill each other, which is a good thing, un­til your fu­ture de­pends on wip­ing out the en­emy.”

As the refugee camp burns on the French coast in Calais, there are few who wish to kill those who flee war, per­se­cu­tion or dic­ta­tor­ship. But it is point­less to pre­tend there is much sup­port for the cause of refugees. As a group their hu­man­ity has been sys­tem­at­i­cally stripped away. They are not like you, or your fam­ily, or your neigh­bours. Rather they are seen as a col­lec­tive blob com­posed of face­less de­ceit­ful crim­i­nals, po­ten­tial rapists and mur­der­ers who will steal homes, jobs and re­sources. If we be­lieved they were like us or our chil­dren, we would not tol­er­ate their mass drown­ings in the Mediter­ranean.

Last year, Bri­tish broad­caster Sky News tweeted about a mi­grant who “died try­ing to reach Bri­tain through the Chan­nel tun­nel on a freight train”. The re­sponses were not rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the de­cent ma­jor­ity: they were ex­treme sen­ti­ments but none­the­less in­struc­tive. “I’m sorry are we meant to feel sorry for these crim­i­nals??”, asked one. “Oh well one less to drain Bri­tain’s econ­omy got no sym­pa­thy for them,” said an­other. “Nearly made it … bet was chuffed to bits!!!” cack­led an­other. Oth­ers were more to the point – a sim­ple “good” suf­ficed.

It is al­ways com­fort­ing to imag­ine that those who ex­press such cru­elty – let alone in­flict it – are so­cio­pathic. How­ever these are not so­ciopaths, who make up a tiny frac­tion of the pop­u­la­tion. And there is a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence be­tween glibly em­brac­ing strangers’ deaths on Twit­ter and killing them your­self.

But the truth is that much of the vi­o­lence through­out our species’ blood­stained his­tory was not in­flicted by peo­ple in­ca­pable of em­pa­thy. Atroc­i­ties were com­mit­ted by peo­ple who, in other sce­nar­ios, would help a pen­sioner cross the road, smile en­dear­ingly at a stranger’s in­fant in a train car­riage or come to the as­sis­tance of some­one they’d never met be­fore who was in dis­tress.

In the Balkan wars of the 1990s, neigh­bours, col­leagues, even friends, mur­dered one an­other. It didn’t mat­ter who they were: they were mem­bers of a group who, it was be­lieved, posed an ex­is­ten­tial threat to the killers’ own com­mu­nity. West­ern colo­nial­ism was pred­i­cated on strip­ping hu­man­ity away from colo­nial sub­jects. Pseu­do­sci­en­tists and an­thro­pol­o­gists de­vel­oped the­o­ries of Africans be­ing in­nately in­fe­rior to peo­ple of Euro­pean ori­gin. Un­til 1967, Indige­nous Aus­tralians were reg­u­lated by the coun­try’s law as “flora and fauna”: they were of­fi­cially wildlife, like the kan­ga­roo. Bri­tish pub­lic opin­ion would not have tol­er­ated the avoid­able famines that po­ten­tially killed tens of mil­lions in In­dia if the pub­lic had be­lieved In­di­ans were like them.

In the 1930s, nazism en­veloped Ger­many, a na­tion re­garded as one of the most civilised and cul­tured on Earth. Strip­ping away the hu­man­ity of Jews, Slavs and other “un­de­sir­ables” was a pre­con­di­tion to mur­der­ing them. In the Pol­ish town of Poz­nan in Oc­to­ber 1943, Hein­rich Himm­ler of­fi­cially con­firmed the Nazi Holo­caust. “We must be hon­est, de­cent, loyal and com­radely to mem­bers of our own blood and to no­body else,” he de­clared.

There is no sys­tem­atic in­dus­tri­alised at­tempt to ex­ter­mi­nate mil­lions of peo­ple to­day, but hun­dreds of thou­sands have per­ished in Syria’s killing fields, and the UN de­scribes the treat­ment of Yazidis as geno­cide. Our grim his­tory is lit­tered with other re­minders of the log­i­cal ex­tremes of de­hu­man­i­sa­tion. As Ger­man so­cial neu­ro­sci­en­tist Pro­fes­sor Ta­nia Singer puts it, a “nat­u­ral ca­pac­ity for em­pathic res­o­nance can eas­ily be blocked – not just in psy­chopaths – but in all of us: sim­ply be­cause we think some­one was un­fair or is not be­long­ing to ‘our tribe’”. This is a theme that I con­tin­u­ally re­turn to be­cause the cor­rup­tion of shared hu­man­ity is at the heart of in­jus­tice.

It also pro­vides clues about how we might re­spond. Po­lit­i­cal lin­guists have ar­gued that the right of­ten uses sto­ries to make an ar­gu­ment, while the left falls back on facts and sta­tis­tics. But we’re hu­man be­ings, not ma­chines. Take the refugee cri­sis. What, at least mo­men­tar­ily, shifted at­ti­tudes? It was when a lit­tle Kur­dish boy, Alan Kurdi, washed up dead on a Turkish beach. All of a sud­den, refugees were hu­man be­ings again: like the kids play­ing foot­ball on your street.

In­jus­tice be­comes less tol­er­a­ble if the vic­tims are hu­man be­ings rather than cock­roaches. De­hu­man­i­sa­tion leads to the tol­er­ance of suf­fer­ing at best, to mur­der at worst. Restor­ing our shared hu­man­ity isn’t easy, not least be­cause pow­er­ful in­ter­ests – from me­dia out­lets to politi­cians – re­lent­lessly seek to un­der­mine it. But it is the only hope for a trou­bled world.

West­ern colo­nial­ism was pred­i­cated on strip­ping hu­man­ity away from colo­nial sub­jects

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