Saturday, March 23, 2013

An Absence of Empathy

We've all known people like this:  people who seem incapable of any sort of empathy for others, whether human or animals. Anyone who's been around the internet more than a little bit in the past few decades encounters the absence of empathy among posters and commenters in internet fora all the time. Being as unemotional and un-empathetic as possible online is often considered the mark of a logical mind...

The most striking thing to me about Tim Sappington's snuff video of shooting a horse -- he says for food -- while cursing animal activists as he does so -- is his utter lack of empathy for "that thing" (the horse) let alone for the people he sees as his enemies.

Of course, a lot of farm and ranch folk are not brought up to have empathy for farm animals. They are not pets, after all, they are livestock, and the animals represent a significant portion of the household's -- and often the community's -- livelihood. It can be counter productive to have empathy for the livestock, especially when the animals are raised for food and profit. Many people of those who raise animals are quite consciously encouraged to resist any empathetic feelings for their animals -- in part because emotion just gets in the way of profit. It was no different during slavery-time regarding the chattel out in the quarter. For some people, it is never different.

Last month, there was a traditional pig kill and barbecue nearby for the benefit of the 4-H. "Traditional" in this case means that the pigs are killed by cutting their throats and leaving them to bleed to death in squealing agony -- which is not a comforting thing to do or to witness.  It is not quick and it is not easy, and the pigs do not like it. But the blood is traditionally saved and used, and every part of the pig is used or preserved for later use. So there is that.

Of course, sheep and goats are often killed on the farm or ranch the same way, and kosher and halal slaughter of cattle requires that the the throat of conscious cattle be ritually cut and the animal bleed to death without stunning beforehand.

The only way to be able to do this, it seems to me, is to become so inured to the crisis of the animal(s) being slaughtered, to so completely suppress one's natural empathy for the suffering of creatures great and small, that the process of killing them is simply something you do, not something that "means" anything to you or that affects you at the time in any way. The animal must not have any sentience as far as the killer is concerned. The animal is an object, no more, no less. And one is not supposed to have feelings for objects.

I realize that some people are not suppressing their natural empathy in the face of suffering animals, they have no empathy for animals or any other living thing to begin with. It's not "logic," it's the absence of feeling.

And that's pretty much what I would say is the case with Tim Sappington and quite likely with his boss at Valley Meats, Rick de los Santos. They have an absence of empathy for other living things, be they human or animal.

Whether they came into the world without the capability of empathy or they had it but it was trained and conditioned out of them, who knows?  But the fact is that they can kill without conscience or any feeling at all -- except perhaps glee? -- whatever is in front of them. Worse, perhaps, they can casually order others to keep right on killing without conscience. The Other is nothing more than an object for whom they have neither respect nor concern. The Other is their Ultimate Enemy.

The Busheviks were masters at it, especially that ogre, "Darth" Cheney. His evil spawn for that matter as well. But Gee Dubya was no slouch when it came to demonstrating his absence of empathy. Just ask Cindy Sheehan and those who camped out with her on the road to the Bush "ranch... "

Thus it has been with our valiant soldiers whether at home sitting in front of computer monitors, their fingers on the triggers of far away drones, or in the field in one of our nation's various war-theatres awaiting the opportunity to kill the Enemy or roaming the country-side looking for targets. They have no feeling of empathy for the Enemy or apparently any comprehension that said Enemy is another human being -- or for that matter, a "being" at all. The Enemy is fully objectified, and the extermination of the Enemy "means" no more than the elimination of a weed or the removal of a particularly inconvenient rock from their path.

Those who can't overcome their sense of empathy with the Other don't last very long in the all-volunteer military. But I think back to when there was a draft and empathy was not self-selected out but had to be incompletely trained out of the soldiers -- and still, most soldiers wouldn't fire on the designated Enemy du jour. Back then, there was a certain level of respect and honor attributed to the Enemy. And a certain persistent empathy that could not be eliminated.

No more.

It's not just the troops that no longer have the ability to empathize beyond their immediate circle -- if they can even empathize within it.

We've seen many years of entirely unempathetic elite private and government sectors, led by men and women who seem incapable of recognizing let alone empathizing with the plight of anyone not in their circle -- if they can even empathize then. If they cannot empathize with other human beings, what must they think of dumb animals? Or the Earth itself?

That can sometimes surprise us. There are people -- plenty of them -- who have no concern whatever for other humans but who are devoted to animals, and sometimes vice versa. In the case of people like Sappington, a driving factor in their absence of empathy for other living things seems to be fear -- which they try to conquer through their threat or demonstration of god-like power.

The casual and callous killing of a horse, for example.

I've been brought up with the idea that all life is sacred, and I can't imagine acting without empathy toward any other person or creature -- though I can and have cut myself off from particularly unpleasant (and unempathetic) people. But not everyone is raised that way, and a lot of ranchers, farmers, soldiers, and others are deliberately and specifically brought up or conditioned not to have empathy for livestock or other humans.

Empathy is treated as a sign of weakness.

We can easily see where an absence of empathy can be highly valued in our society. I once knew a judge, for example, who was proud of his strict adherence to "law" -- and a complete absence of any empathy toward any person appearing before him whose status was less than his own. He didn't care that he was despised; he had and exercised power. He relished the harm his rulings could cause.

The Busheviks likewise. But it's not just them; we see the same phenomenon throughout government service, regardless of political party or ideology. We see it in the predatory nature of capitalism and those who serve the beast of greed.

Empathy is discouraged everywhere we turn.  And the absence of empathy is what has led to spasms of social discrimination, racism, genocide, and casual murder. It has very nearly led to the destruction of the planet.

It's time to reverse the trend.

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