MAPPING THE LOSS OF EMPATHY
We are a map drawing species. To get from A to B in a strange land requires a map, a local guide, or the investment of considerable patience and trial and error. Maps have long been part of our world. And maps are a medium in themselves; classifications, terrain, and borders. We are familiar with such geographical maps. The map we talk less about is the map that charts violence, danger and instability. Most of us try not to stumble into the middle of a civil war when our attention is to sign on for a holiday.
Crime fiction authors provide a map of societal violence and the characters who commit such acts, their victims, and the collateral damage to families, neighbors, and the community. We are the Welsh miner’s canary and we chart the depths of places, map them, and our travels through the nightmarish landscape of violence is read by others. In our crime novels, the connecting theme is the loss of empathy. When it falls apart, the consequences are violence and instability. Criminal acts are institutionalized. The government is under the control of psychopaths. The dominant feature of a society drained of empathy is hopelessness. It is a society based on naked power and fear—the essence of a pure noir. At that point, no one needs to read a crime novel to understand what it feels like to live in a noir environment; it surrounds them, leaving them no hope of escape.
As we tend to live inside a relatively safe and secure bubble—this is the privilege of the middle-class—our reading of the violence map comes less from personal escape than from the nightly TV news, Internet feed, crime novels or newspapers. Given the huge steel and glass cities that we inhabit soon forget that like other primates we are inherently dangerous animals. When I attend mystery/crime fiction conference, I rarely encounter anyone who has witnessed violence up close and personal. When that happens, the sense of anger, fear, and heart pounding terror leaves a mark. Most of the time violence happens to other people far away from our daily lives.
Look at our closest cousins the chimp and you find a ruthless, brutal, violent disposition well suited to bullying, assaults, rape, and murder. The good thing about chimps is they size of their male troops is small: usually under a dozen of males. Not that a dozen chimps can’t do a lot of damage to a solitary chimp from a neighboring territory, the fact is the violence is constrained by the absence of planning, organization, delegation of authority, recruitment and, of course, weapons.
One of the by-products of the WikiLeaks disclosures—and we’ve seen only the tip of the iceberg—is exactly how very dangerous and unstable our species is and the nuts and bolts that hold the lid on the violence is forever slipping off. The truth of the matter is that WikiLeaks is a mixed blessing—as are most blessings. One cheers the little guy who stands up to power and exposes the hypocrisy, deceit, dissembling and nastiness that colors diplomats, intelligence gatherers, officials, and others inside the great political game. They lie. They are crooks. They are two-faced. The litany of charges fly thick and fast from all directions.
There is another darker side to contemplate. The forces of violence are kept in check by larger forces. The Americans have been providing that service (and there is no question self-interest is involved) by mapping the danger zones. When things flare up in places like Thailand, embassies around the world issue travel advisories. That is diplomatic language for potential primate rampage and if you get caught in the thick of it, you might get yourself injured or killed.
I subscribe to the Hobbesian view of the world. Our population is about as domesticated and controlled as is possible without a vastly larger prison system. It isn’t just the power of countries with military might that keeps everyone else from tearing off the limbs and poking out the eyes of the tribe next door. We have two things that other primates lack and that makes all the difference in the way we map violence.
We have language and we have a capacity for empathy fueled by language. Empathy is often overlooked as a major factor in human relationships. In other words, we can see ourselves, good and bad, in others. To see yourself in another person humanizes them. It is far more difficult to commit an act of violence against someone with whom you feel empathy for. When you stand in another’s shoes, it is difficult to cheat, rob or murder them; steal their possession, spouse, enslave their children. That is why in time of war, the combatants and their governments do all they can to extract empathy from its soldiers and civilian population and convert the enemy into an ‘other’ who is less than human. Someone who has no shield against violence. Empathy is what we feel when our friend’s father or mother dies. Or when we see a child in distress. Rather than violence, we give comfort and care, if only through our words. Words do matter as they are the carriers of empathy from person to person.
When we map violence, we are looking for areas where empathy among people has broken down. The early signs are again found in language: hatred and hate language tears down empathy and makes violence possible. We don’t need an embassy warning to judge the level of hatred inside a community. People who spread hatred use TV, the Internet, posters, newspaper columns, to communicate that the object of that hate is outside the bounds of empathy. In the case of terrorism, those fighting for a cause dehumanize the other side. A suicide bomber, if nothing else, is someone who has been emptied of the capacity to feel empathy. Such acts are the deep primate violent streak that breaks down the empathy gate and once that is down, it is murder and mayhem.
So long as empathy is widely practiced and accepted as a central cultural norm, governing a large population becomes easier. But power corrupts and the first thing out of the box is preferential treatment or double-standards which push aside empathy based conduct and replace it with ‘me first’ and everyone-else-second attitudes. As power continues to coil up in greed, self-interest and corruption, the absence of empathy trickles down and others take up the same game. At this juncture, it is the opportunists who fill in to fill their bank accounts with the spoils of easy plunder. In other words, power in a governing authority is best used to check the conduct of those who have no sense of empathy—the psychopaths and those on the border who will take advantage if empathy starts to fail in the larger community. But what if the government takes on the psychopathic traits of the most dangerous members of society? We enters Hobbes world.
In Thai culture there is a phrase translated as ‘Water Heart’ or Nam Jai. It is used to describe the small acts of courtesy, politeness or helpfulness to another person. That person is a stranger. It is, of course, easy enough to be polite and nice to one’s friends and family and classmates but quite another for a stranger to be the beneficiary of our small acts of grace. I’ve written a book about the heart words in Thai, and often have been asked when is my favourite jai phrase. I always circle back to nam jai as it symbolizes the essence of empathy. That one quality that makes it possible for millions of people to live, play and work in close proximity in huge cities like Bangkok.
Thai culture is changing, though, as cultures are changing everywhere. Nam jai still exists in Thailand but it has been frayed and torn in recent years. The small acts of grace happen but less frequently. There was a breakdown in April and May 2010 when finding nam jai in the streets that cut across the color divide was nearly impossible. With more violence, comes more instability and uncertainty. We live in a world, which seems permanently stuck in the Orange Alert stage; a tick or two from the Red Alert. That small difference matters as it is the difference between being able to live in relatively normal way, secure in one’s person and property, and hearing gun fire, watching columns of smoke rise after a booming explosion.
The world is a far more dangerous and unstable place than we wish. Without a concept such as Nam jai or empathy, though, the map where violence is the norm will continue spreading, until we have a new empire replacing the American empire. That won’t be necessarily a pretty or safe place. We might know a great deal more in such a world but we will also be far more exposed, afraid and in danger. The risk is that our worst primate impulses will no longer be restrained by the humanizing influence of culture, language and empathy. The psychopaths and opportunists have nothing to fear in such a world as they are the ones in power. Transparency is a wonderful goal as it allows us to monitor the danger signs in those exercising power. Evil can come out of good just like good can come out of evil. If the result, though, is a world where dangers overwhelm daily life, openness will have very little meaning.