The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts & Entertainment -

SI­MON BARON CO­HEN re­lates at the start of his new book how, as a young boy, he was told by his fa­ther about the atroc­i­ties against the in­mates of con­cen­tra­tion camps com­mit­ted by their guards and oth­ers.

As a re­sult, he ex­plains, he be­came pre­oc­cu­pied with how some peo­ple were able to treat their fel­lows so in­hu­manely. His book is the prod­uct of that life-long pre­oc­cu­pa­tion.

The an­swer it gives to this trou­bling co­nun­drum is that cru­elty re­sults from a lack of em­pa­thy. This is de­fined by Cam­bridge pro­fes­sor of de­vel­op­men­tal psy­chol­ogy Baron Co­hen as the “abil­ity to iden­tify what some­one else is think­ing or feel­ing and to re­spond to their thoughts and feel­ings with an ap­pro­pri­ate emo­tion”.

In turn, he claims lack of em­pa­thy is due to a mal­func­tion in a part of the brain which he calls “the em­pa­thy cir­cuit”. When func­tion­ing nor­mally, em­pa­thy re­sults. When it func­tions ab­nor­mally, zero-em­pa­thy fol­lows and then peo­ple can quite hap­pily mur­der their own chil­dren.

A de­fec­tive em­pa­thy cir­cuit can be due, Baron Co­hen says, to both ge­netic and en­vi­ron­men­tal causes. Some peo­ple are born that way. In oth­ers, it re­sults from how they were treated in in­fancy or child­hood. Lack of suf­fi­ciently at­ten­tive par­ent­ing is, he claims, li­able to im­pair de­vel­op­ment of the em­pa­thy cir­cuit in ways that some­times only be­come man­i­fest in adult­hood.

Baron Co­hen’s ex­pla­na­tion of cru­elty seems overly sim­ple. It seem­ingly ac­cords in­suf­fi­cient at­ten­tion to how se­lec­tive the lack of em­pa­thy of­ten is in cruel peo­ple. A Nazi con­cen­tra­tion guard could quite hap­pily des­patch a cou­ple of Jews be­fore break­fast and then go home to wife and child un­able hurt a fly. Even Adolf Hitler was be­lieved to be a moral veg­e­tar­ian.

What needs ex­plain­ing is how ef­fort­lessly many cruel peo­ple seem to turn off and on their em­pa­thy cir­cuits at will. Un­til this ac­com­plish­ment is ex­plained, Baron Co­hen’s at­tempt to aban­don good and evil for the bright moral­ity-free up­lands of neu­rol­ogy seems ill-fated.

For clues as to what may ac­count for se­lec­tiv­ity in the lack of em­pa­thy in so many cruel peo­ple, Baron Co­hen might use­fully have con­sulted Stephen Frosh’s new book. Here, in writ­ing about an­ti­semitism, this fel­low psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor — at Birk­beck Col­lege, Lon­don — quotes psy­cho­an­a­lyst Otto Fenichel: “the an­tisemite,im­mersed in con­fu­sion and led astray by ide­o­log­i­cal forces, sees in the Jew ev­ery­thing which brings him mis­ery — not only his so­cial op­pres­sor but also his own un­con­scious in­stincts”.

Ref­er­ence to po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated false be­liefs, and to the dy­nam­ics of the un­con­scious, seems a far more promis­ing way in which to ac­count for a lot of hu­man cru­elty than does a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the hard-wiring of the brain.

It is the role of the un­con­scious in de­ter­min­ing the vi­cis­si­tudes of our in­ner emo­tional lives that forms the prin­ci­pal sub­ject of Frosh’s il­lu­mi­nat­ing book. Chap­ters are de­voted to each of the prin­ci­pal feel­ings that mat­ter most to most peo­ple: their feel­ings of sad­ness, glad­ness, love, and hate.

It also dis­cusses sev­eral other equally in­ter­est­ing ques­tions, such as why we so fre­quently lose touch with our feel­ings and thereby cease feel­ing in­tensely about any­thing; why our lives are im­pov­er­ished when that hap­pens; and how, with the aid of psy­cho­anal­y­sis, we may be as­sisted in feel­ing bet­ter, in both the sense of feel­ing less mis­er­able, as well as more closely con­nected with our feel­ings and able thereby to en­joy closer and more ful­fill­ing re­la­tions with oth­ers.

While each book is writ­ten by a mas­ter of his dis­ci­pline, it is Frosh’s de­cep­tively slim, but pro­found, vol­ume that is the more con­vinc­ing. David Conway teaches phi­los­o­phy at the Univer­sity of Es­sex

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