Empathy and Madness |

6 min read

In a recent interview, Israeli writer Etgar Keret gave the following response to a question about how he is choosing the words he would use to describe the current situation in Israel and the Gaza strip:

I didn’t write anything in the past two weeks. I write these iPhone notes for myself, mostly to digest the things that I saw or heard about. But I think that the most attacked posts on the internet are those of people saying, “Oh, my god, I see people dying in Israel and I see people dying in Palestine, and it breaks my heart.” If you put up a post like that, they will rip you to pieces from both sides. And I’m saying that, in this sense, I do feel some kind of deterioration, a human deterioration.

Why would a person be ripped to pieces for saying that death, particularly that of civilians including children, is bad? This is the question that I wish to take up here.

I will begin with an anecdote: Once, when I was a child, I saw a boxing match on TV. At one point, the camera zoomed in on the audience, and I could tell from people’s facial expressions that they were only pained when one of the boxers got hit but were rejoicing when that boxer, in turn, was pounding the other one. It occurred to me that this must be how support for a boxer works: It’s painful to see said boxer take a hit but pleasant to see him inflict a blow on the adversary.

My early childhood experience contained, in essence, the unsavory manifestations of the phenomenon of “taking sides.”

There are, of course, unproblematic varieties of this phenomenon. Jule and Jim may argue about which of two movies by the same director is better, and you may take Jule’s side or Jim’s. Or in a discussion about whether to spend more money on trying to get to Mars, you can take the side of the space enthusiasts or of the skeptics.

Other cases, however, are more troublesome, as when political divisions make people not simply rejoice in the victory of their own candidate but in the pain of the losing side. It is likely that in some of those cases, a person’s victorious joy would be diminished if said person found out that the losing side was quite blasé about the defeat and not saddened.

That a complete lack of empathy and, indeed, taking pleasure in the pain of others is problematic is easily seen in the individual case. Schadenfreude – rejoicing at the adversity of those we dislike – is universally recognized as a base and mean streak, and few would admit they feel it, let alone that they seek it out.

Not so in the case of groups, which is partly what makes group divisions more treacherous than personal animosities. Members of groups who see themselves at war with other groups not only tend to experience very little empathy for the members of the opposing tribe but put pressure on each other not to feel any, as though empathy of this sort would show lack of commitment to the group. Relatedly, voicing shame and embarrassment for anything that one’s own side has done is seen as disloyal, too.

In addition, simple narratives are seductive, and emotional ambivalence is painful. We don’t want to have mixed feelings for either our side or the other side, so we reduce the complexity to a binary choice and adopt an interpretation without nuance. We may also feel our pain too acutely in order to experience empathy for the pain of others.

Both lack of tolerance for emotional ambivalence and the limits of empathy come up later in the interview with Keret I mentioned above. Keret said:

I speak to people, also in Israel, who say, “After what we’ve been through, after I lost my sister, I don’t care how many people die in Gaza.” And I say to people: When you do that, you’re hurting yourself. You’re hurting yourself. You are basically saying: “I’m downgrading myself. I want to be something that is less than what I used to be.” It’s the inability to say: I don’t know. I don’t understand. I’m confused. I have feelings, but I don’t have a structure around them. And it’s OK.

Even if one side was completely and utterly without blemish and the other was solely at fault, lack of empathy for serious pain would hardly be the response of a good human being, but human situations are typically much messier. The conflict in the Middle East, where both sides are victims as well as perpetrators, is a case in point.

What I wish to suggest here is that there is a link between basic humanity and sanity. Groupishness in ordinary cases, such as team rivalry, is quite all right and healthy (even, perhaps, when it contains a small dose of schadenfreude at the losses of the other side), but when the damage sustained by both sides includes children dying in pain, there is something pathological about an utter lack of empathy. Groupishness must have boundaries.

I would like to end with some help from the poet Homer. In a particularly moving scene in The Illiad, Homer describes a final battle between Hector, the son of Priam, and the famous warrior Achilles. When Hector realizes that he is going to lose, he begs Achilles to return his body to his parents so that he may get an honorable funeral, but Achilles rebuffs Hector, promising to give his body to the dogs and vultures instead. Later, Hector’s father, Priam, the King of Troy, comes to plead with Achilles to be given Hector’s body. Priam reminds Achilles that Achilles too has a father, a father who would have hope if he heard Achilles was still alive but would grieve if told Achilles had been killed. Priam asks Achilles to see the grieving father in him, Priam, and to return Hector’s body.

And against the odds, Achilles, moved by Priam’s words and the old man’s courage, does as Priam implores. Not only that, but Priam and Achilles then weep together, Priam for his son Hector, and Achilles for his own father. The scene is an early instance of true moral insight in literature – the ability that always remains dormant in us to go beyond taking sides and see things from a human point of view. It is this ability that is our chief protection against the type of groupishness which can whip us all into a moral frenzy and indeed, lead to collective moral insanity.

You May Also Like

+ There are no comments

Add yours