Context, sympathy and empathy

The deaths at Virginia Tech are a staggering tragedy. Thirty-two people got up and began an ordinary day, only to be cut down with terrible savagery. All of us are shaken. “How did it happen?” “How can something like that happen?” We try desperately to imbue this violence with meaning, whether it’s to look at larger social issues (gun control) or heroic acts of personal bravery. It affects us deeply — as it should. But it also reminds us about the nature of context, about sympathy and empathy, about tribalism.

The fact is, our daily news, way too often, is filled with stories of ordinary people dying violent, senseless deaths. They die en mass in Iraq, Israel, Afghanistan, Africa, India, Indonesia, Spain and more places than I can name off the top of my head. They die from bombs, earthquakes, airplane crashes, train wrecks, shipwrecks, and whatever other devices of death that man and nature can provide. With significant exceptions, such as the staggering death rate from Indonesian tsunami, we read of these deaths, feel a shudder of sympathy and, of necessity, move on.

Part of our ability to move on is, of course, compassion fatigue. Living in a wide world where bad stuff happens, we would become dysfunctional were every death in the world to be a wrenching emotional experience. However, if compassion fatigue were the whole answer, we wouldn’t be devastated by 32 deaths, on the other side of the continent, involving people we don’t actually know. That we are devastated is because we go beyond “mere” sympathy, into empathy. In Clinton-esque fashion, we feel these peoples’ pain.

But why do we feel their pain, when we feel only sad about, but don’t feel the pain of, 37 people killed by a suicide bomber in Baghdad? I think it’s the nature of tribalism. We seem innately to divide the world into an “us” versus “them” pattern. Most people think of tribalism in warfare terms, in terms of the “us-es” fighting the “thems” for finite resources (or, at least, resources that one or both sides perceive as finite). We forget that this same binary thinking also works at the compassion level. People I know, or that I could know, people who live as I do, or almost as I do, are going to excite more sympathy from me, because I assume that, not only do they live as I do, but they feel as I do. Their loss, their pain, are exquisitely similar to mine.

Or, to put it differently, and more simply, when people die in Virginia, I feel “There but for the grace of God go I.” When people die in Iraq, I think “Thank God I’m an American, not an Iraqi.” The latter deaths I can place at an emotional distance, the former I cannot.

And so, selfishly or not, when someone dies on my soil, on American land, in a context intimately familiar to me, an American college, the fear and sadness I feel is immediate, not academic. It turns out, that in death, as in everything else, context matters.

UPDATE: Here’s James Taranto’s take on why incidents such as yesterday’s shooting at Virginia Tech are particularly hurtful and personal:

For those of us whose job it is to have opinions, an event like yesterday’s massacre at Virginia Tech is a bigger challenge than, say, a terrorist attack. The murder of 32 people by South Korea native Cho Seung-hui is no less evil than massacres carried out by suicide bombers or hijackers, but it is harder to comprehend. Terrorism is carried out by an organized enemy with a political agenda; we can rally to defeat the enemy. The Virginia Tech shooter seems to have been a lone nut. He murdered all those people only to render his own life a nullity by committing suicide in the end.

As is so often the case when he writes, I think he makes an excellent point.

UPDATE II: Speaking of context, here’s a low key headline that 127 people died in Iraq.  That’s 127 lives snuffed out, 127 people ripped apart on a sunny morning.  We note it in passing and, with sadness, we think “Thank God I’m in America, not in Iraq.” Nevertheless, we don’t spend an obsessive day repeatedly going back to the story for more information, we don’t talk about it over the water cooler, and it doesn’t dominate the news.  It’s sad, but it’s not our tribe.

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  • Thomas


    I don’t see anything wrong or selfish with an American being more emotional and empathetic when an American gets killed, as opposed to an Iraqi. You identify with your own, and rightly so. People calling this mentality xenophobic or selfish or whatever entirely miss the fact that loyalty to your own, your fellow countrymen is a basic loyalty.

    What? Are we supposed to be loyal to the citizens of Mozambique? Are supposed to give our fealty to the world with the amorphous title of a “global citizen”, which demands nothing of you while you take everything your host country offers?

    Naw, Book, I think you’ve got it right. And I for one think it’s a healthy loyalty to have.

  • ymarsakar

    Certainly you are correct that such an effect occurs, Book. But I’m not sure they occur for the reasons you outline. I think they occur predominantly because of how long these events stay on people’s minds and how much context people understand. It is harder to understand the context of how people live in Baghdad, but it isn’t hard to imagine the context of an American living on a school and learning at a school.

    The more you put yourself into a person’s shoes and the more you understand (truly understand, not just read or hear), the more you feel. Because our emotions are based upon our thoughts. If we don’t think of something traumatic, we can therefore repress our reactions. There are many defense mechanisms against things that the brain doesn’t want to think about.

    Denial, projection, displacement, regression, repression, etc. Ignorance, real ignorance, doesn’t require some kind of mental defense mechanism to be activated. It just requires that people are ignorant and parochial. The more cosmopolitan someone is, the more they should understand and feel about other people’s perspectives. Or from other people’s perspectives.

  • ymarsakar

    Because our emotions are based upon our thoughts.

    Just to make things clear, but I do not postulate that if you can change your thinking, you can change your feelings. Not all the time and not for everything, surely. I am not a follower of Noam Chomsky’s Cognitive Psychology, people.