When Empathy Withers
Max Stephenson Jr, Virginia Tech
Abstract: This brief essay uses several works of fiction and nonfiction to illustrate the profound character of evil that obtains when individuals lose their capacity to empathize with the circumstances and situation of others. W.H. Auden explored the contours of human evil throughout much of his career and argued that it inhered, even at its most vicious, in all of humankind. The persistent challenge for nations particularly and civilization more generally is to acknowledge that fact and to ensure that this omnipresent and often apparently “unspectacular” force is not unleashed. The paper provides several examples aimed at illustrating that observers should consider current trends in American policy and politics carefully as they signal a sharp decline in empathy for major groups within the polity, an inauspicious sign for United States democratic politics.
In 2005 the often wry and always masterful singer-songwriter John Prine released a song called “Some Humans Ain’t Human,”i in which he commented on individuals who seem ever to treat their fellow human beings in selfish and hurtful ways. These people exhibit both remarkable insensitivity and a penchant for demanding that others accord with their view of them and/or agree to be remade into their desired images.ii At one point in the tune Prine’s lyrics suggested that were you able to
… open up their hearts
[And] here’s what you’ll find
Some humans ain’t human
Some people ain’t kind.iii
Prine was addressing an age-old human conundrum: How to explain the self-absorption and nearly complete lack of empathy that people can evince. A dearth of empathy, as Simon Baron-Coheniv has argued, may in fact be the cause of cruelty and evil, with greater levels of malice linked to diminishing levels of empathy. I have had occasion in recent months to reflect on this concern both generally and as it is currently revealed in our nation’s politics. Not long ago, I reread Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl and wondered who, in the intimate circle of friends aware of the family’s hiding place, could have rationalized so cruelly betraying them.v I also recently watched the film The Reader and grappled with how its principal character, Hanna Schmitz, a former Nazi prison guard, could have stood by and watched the church where her charges were housed burn to the ground while “responsibly” ensuring none could “escape,” thereby literally murdering all within.vi I also found myself mulling this same complete lack of empathy when musing about the documentary, The Flat, which concerns one Israeli man’s discovery that his maternal grandparents, who had fled the German Holocaust, were close friends with Leopold von Mildenstein, a Nazi officer and predecessor of Adolf Eichmann as head of the infamous SS Office for Jewish affairs, managers of the “final solution.”vii And I have pondered Hannah Arendt’s effort to understand Eichmann’s apparently “banal evil” at his trial in Jerusalem in 1961.viii
I found another opportunity to reflect on the nature of evil and those who commit it, in an essay by Edward Mendelson, Lionel Trilling Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University and executor of Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden’s estate, entitled “The Secret Auden” in a recent volume of The New York Review of Books.ix Mendelson explored a central leitmotif in Auden’s thinking and work throughout virtually his entire professional life: how human evil should be regarded.
On one side of the argument concerning the roots of evil are those who, like Auden, sense the furies hidden in themselves, evils they hope never to unleash, but which, they sometimes perceive, add force to their ordinary angers and resentments, especially those angers they prefer to think are righteous. On the other side are those who can say of themselves without irony, ‘I am a good person,’ who perceive great evils only in other people whose motives and actions are entirely different from their own. This view has dangerous consequences when a party or nation, having assured itself of its inherent goodness, assumes its actions are therefore justified, even when in the eyes of everyone else, they are murderous and oppressive.x
Auden contended such potential evil—manifest, when exhibited in the extreme, as a complete lack of empathy and a callous disregard for others—was latent in everyone. Mendelson noted that as early as 1939, in the poem ‘Herman Melville,’ Auden articulated a view of human evil very similar to Arendt’s:
Evil is unspectacular and always
And shares our bed and eats at our own table.xi
In 1940, in The Double Man, Auden offered an epigraph by Michel Montaigne
We are, I know not how, double in ourselves,
so that we believe we disbelieve and cannot
rid ourselves of what we condemn.xii
Taking Auden, Arendt and Montaigne seriously leads one to conclude that all people are capable of evil despite our individual and collective propensity, as Auden noted, to ascribe malevolence to other persons or groups and not to ourselves and thereby to remove ourselves from all responsibility for those “others’” terrible actions. Not coincidentally, such a stance also suggests that those taking it are themselves incapable of such behaviors. Auden begged to differ. The poet surely did not imagine that one individual’s petty stupidity, cupidity or jealousy could be likened to the horrors of The Shoah, but he did maintain that all human beings possess the capacity for such blind hatred, enmity or lack of empathy. One sign that a person is on the way to becoming “not human,” is the appearance of a smug self-satisfaction that places shares of the population into “other” categories, worthy of disdain, or worse. And it is that condition, when aggregated to large groups, that is dangerous and that is increasingly of moment in our politics today. That is, examples of such views are worth highlighting for what they signal about the state of American politics.
Here are some recent examples of stands recently adopted by the Republican Party and its 2012 Presidential candidate that reflect a growing lack of empathy for demographic groups that many of the party’s faithful either view as a threat or mistrust on other, often unarticulated grounds:
- Efforts across multiple states whose result is to make it more difficult for the poor, minorities, seniors and working class individuals to vote, on the rationale that fraud is rampant (it is in fact virtually non-existent) and that curbs on access to the polls are necessary to address the issue.
- Initiatives to decry the poor as a group as architects of their own poverty (which is not factually true for millions so situated) and to abjure them to take responsibility for the same. These claims have thus far resulted in an almost continuous series of attacks in recent years on the nation’s anti-poverty programs, including significant reductions this year in its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to address alleged “misuse;” a recent report from U.S. Representative Paul Ryan (R), Chair of the House Budget Committee, finding fault with virtually every anti-poverty program in the federal budget; and the Party’s insistence that support for the long-term unemployed end on the view that it was preventing its recipients from actively looking for work, rather than helping them cope with their profoundly changed life circumstances and a still sluggish economy.
- Former GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s remarks at a campaign event in 2012 that fully 47 percent of the U.S. population were “takers,” unwilling to assume responsibility for their lives and welfare and should therefore effectively not be considered in the campaign.
- The GOP’s attack on immigrants in several states in recent years, including Alabama and Arizona especially, and the harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric of many of its partisans in Congress that has resulted in that body’s inability to pass much-needed immigration reform legislation.
Whatever else might be said of the penchant of many current Republican Party leaders to vilify certain groups and to decry a host of claims on behalf of the commons, they represent both an increasingly self-righteous and abstract disregard for those so treated and a notable lack of empathy and understanding for the actual conditions of the lives of those targeted, favoring instead broad stereotypes and generalized ideological claims. It is therefore not difficult to conclude that these leaders and their Party should stop these behaviors and engage in a period of more measured soul-searching to find a new and more prudent balance in their rhetoric and position-taking, lest they fall into the pattern of a simplistic demagoguery characterized foremost by a banal and nearly total lack of empathy for those shares of the population they have elected to dismiss. They should take stock very soon, as the trajectory on which they are embarked and its costs are both potentially grave and all too familiar. Arendt, Montaigne and Auden were right. We fail to recognize the apparently unspectacular character of our everyday practice of evil at collective peril to our freedom. All human beings are capable of the most sordid of acts and attitudes and friends of freedom should ever be conscious of that fact.
ii John Prine, “Some Humans Ain’t Human” (Song lyrics). On Fair and Square, 2005. (Oh Boy Records. Tommy Jack Music) Accessed March 20, 2014.
iii Prine, “Some Humans Ain’t Human,” 2005.
iv Simon Baron-Cohen Cohen, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty (New York: Basic Books, 2011).
v Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl (New York: Bantam Books, 1993).
vi Manohla Dargis, “Innocence is Lost in Postwar Germany,” The New York Times, December 9, 2008. Accessed, March 20, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/10/movies/10read.html?_r=0.
vii Jeanette Catsoulis, Jeannette. 2013. “On One Coin, A Swastika and a Star of David,” The New York Times, October 16, 2013. Accessed March 20, 2014.
viii Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Penguin Books, 2006).
ix Edward Mendelson, “The Secret Auden,” The New York Review of Books, 61(5), March 20, 2014, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/mar/20/secret-auden/?insrc=toc.
x Mendelson, “The Secret Auden,” 2014, Section 2.
xi Mendelson, “The Secret Auden,” 2014, Section 2.
xii Mendelson, “The Secret Auden,” 2014, Section 2; W.H. Auden, The Double Man (New York: Random House, 1941).