Too many catastrophes: The end of empathy?


Jacob Stern, “All These Simultaneous Disasters Are Messing With Our Brains; The earthquakes and wildfires and wars keep piling up. When does our empathy run out?,” The Atlantic, August 22, 2021 (8:00 a.m. ET).

Jacob Stern in The Atlantic recounts the story of a gathering psychologist Steven Taylor was at where the following occurred:

Someone mentioned the sickening footage of desperate Afghans clinging to American military aircraft as they departed. Then one man made a remark that caught Taylor off guard: The videos, he said, were funny. Others agreed.

This set Taylor thinking. Taylor, who studies disaster psychology at the University of British Columbia,”knows how intense, sustained stress can desensitize the mind.”

What most concerned him about the incident was what it suggested about the pandemic’s effects on our experience of other disasters and, more broadly, our ability—or inability—to empathize.

The article goes on to discuss the issue with some references to research findings.

The problem is real, and huge.

One wonders how learning to look away from the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria, after the Arab Spring began in that country in 2011, and in particular after Barack Obama cut off support for resistance fighters in 2012, has affected the ability of Americans and others to feel empathy toward and compassion for human rights and war victims in foreign countries.

Close observers of foreign policy note that empathy for foreign victims of atrocities and human rights abuses began to wane around this time. There was little outcry, certainly from the United States, when in 2015 Russia joined the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad in the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity on a massive scale.

Around the world, the outcry of governments and human rights supporters seemed to wane in the face of atrocities against the Rohingya people in Miranmar, the Uigurs in Xinjiang Province in China, and elsewhere.

With the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, individuals’ reserves of empathy were further drained. After an initial period of concern about the impact of the pandemic on people in other countries, attention soon returned to how the pandemic was progressing and being managed in one’s own country.

In the United States, the politicization of the pandemic and measures to control it, such as masks, social distancing, limitations on public gatherings, and more recently vaccinations, has consumed television viewers’ attention. The early scenes of gruesome deaths in hospitals as the numbers piled up soon became routine, and less worthy of media attention–perhaps itself a very rough barometer of public empathy.

Following President Biden’s announcement in March 2020 of his decision to withdraw all forces from Afghanistan, there was little outcry beyond foreign policy and specialists’ circles about the future atrocities and humanitarian crisis the decision necessarily foreshadowed.

That is, until the images of the actual catastrophe began to hit TV screens and news of Taliban atrocities began to filter out.

Undoubtedly there are people who, drained by relentless news of fires and floods and other disasters, have little empathy left for victims of war and human rights violations in Afghanistan, a country on the other side of the world.

The fact that the U.S. is largely responsible for the collapse of the government and Afghan army forces may be a factor in the desire to look away.

The American agreement by Donald Trump to a unilateral surrender, Biden’s decision to implement it in a precipitous and bungled manner, blaming the inevitable psychological impact on Afghan morale on a lack or leadership and a will to fight, added shame to the mix. Americans had an additional reason to look away.

Getting back to the question of whether our capacity for empathy has been drained away, The Atlantic’s Jack Stern closes on a slightly optimistic note. Qoting Steven Taylor, he writes:

People “are just burned out,” Taylor said. “They’ve had enough atrocity and stress for the time being, and they just don’t want to hear any more of that.” He doesn’t think the people he encountered last week are unique. “My concern,” he said, “is that many people are just tuning this stuff out.” If that is the case, if fatigue is in fact swamping empathy, it would be a darkly ironic outcome: the disaster survivors more vulnerable than ever to trauma, the onlookers less willing than ever to help.

Stern, however, finds a source of optimism in the work of Kang Lee:

In his research on post-disaster empathy, Kang Lee, a developmental neuroscientist at the University of Toronto, has found that children as young as 9 can become more generous in the aftermath of disasters. The caveat, he says, is that most studies in the area have focused on short-term disasters with well-defined beginnings and ends, such as earthquakes. Few, if any, look at long, drawn-out disasters, like pandemics. “This,” he says, “is very new to psychologists.”

Lee, notwithstanding his caveats and the limitations of his research, concludes on a positive note,

(Lee) for one, does not much worry about more extreme coldheartedness calcifying into the norm. In his research, he has found disasters’ effects on empathy to be short-lived. If he’s right, then the pandemic is unlikely to change us, at least in this particular way. We will neither be more inured nor more attuned to the suffering of others. And that is both very reassuring and not reassuring at all.

That seems to be a slender reed to hang one’s hopes on, at least with respect to empathy for victims of war, atrocities, and human rights victims in countries like Afghanistan.

The fundamental question of whether our capacity for empathy is diminishing remains, and the answers are not clear.

Upon those answers the future of the human rights movement, and indeed international law probating war crimes and crimes against humanity, may ultimately depend.

Spirit of Voltaire