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When Empathy Withers



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In 2005 the often wry and always masterful singer-songwriter John Prine released a song called “Some Humans Ain’t Human” ( 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. At one point in the tune Prine 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.

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-Cohen (2011) 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. I also recently watched the film The Reader (2008) 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. I also found myself mulling this same dearth of empathy when musing about the documentary, The Flat (2012), 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.” And I have pondered Hannah Arendt’s effort to understand Eichmann’s apparently “banal evil” at his trial in Jerusalem in 1961.

Now comes still another opportunity to reflect on the nature of evil and those who commit it, this time in the guise of an essay by Edward Mendelson, executor of the great Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden’s estate. In the current volume of The New York Review of Books (March 20, 2014) Mendelson explores 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, evil 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.

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 human, And shares our bed and eats at our own table.

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.

Taking Auden, Arendt and Montaigne seriously leads one to conclude that all people are capable of evil. Now, Auden 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 one 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 I find of moment for our politics today.

Here are some recent examples of stands recently adopted by the Republican Party and its recent standard bearer that reflect a growing lack of empathy for demographic groups that many of the GOP’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) 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 new report from 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 recent 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 are “takers,” unwilling to assume responsibility for their lives and welfare and should therefore effectively not be considered in the campaign or one presumes, governance.

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 virtually all 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 it is already clear that the trajectory on which they are embarked and its costs are both potentially grave and all too familiar. Arendt and Auden were right. We fail to recognize the often unspectacular character of evil at collective peril to our freedom.

Publication Date

March 9, 2014