Compassion clash

Out of Sight, Out of Mind: A visualization of drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004.

The murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich, apparently by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adevowale, triggered a groundswell of competing emotions, centered in the U.K.

Principal among them was compassion towards the dead man, his family, and also, in weaker form, to  members of the British armed forces who had served, or serve, in Afghanistan and Iraq.

There was also anger, contempt and hatred towards Adebolajo and Adevowale, spilling over into emotional attacks on other Muslims in the UK. The English Defence League demonstrated in fury., chanting “Muslim killers off our streets” and “There’s only one Lee Rigby”. Leftist opponents countered. The two forces clashed.

Emotions on the streets remind us that thinking of emotions are properties of individuals is a relatively recent development.

Implicit in this chorus of emotions is a multitude of moral judgements about the murder, the victim and the perpetrators. Here I want to focus on those behind the emotion of compassion or empathy, i.e., an experience of feelings similar to those expressed by another person or persons and an ability to share in their pain.This ability to experience vicarious emotions requires an ability to take the perspective of those who suffer.

We form moral judgements in these circumstances by asking three background questions:

1. Are they like us?

Evolutionary psychology teaches us that victims with similar characteristics to ours are more likely to elicit empathy in us. In this case, soldier Digby most certainly was very much like ‘us’ for much of the British public.

2. Are they innocent?

Even those who suffer cruelly will not elicit a compassionate response if they are thought to have contributed in any way to their own suffering. Most would have answered ‘yes’ to this question. Although Digby was a soldier, he was on home soil and not on active duty. In this sense, his murder was not ‘fair’.

3. Could this happen to me?

Imagining ourselves in the position of the victims stirs feelings of compassion. The chances of our being the victim of any terrorist attack are always but it certainly could be imagined.

Corresponding to these questions is the activity of mirror neurons. These are especially active in children because they are most actively learning. For this reason they are so sensitive to human and animal suffering. Adults are usually far more economical with their compassion.

Of course, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adevowale claim to have murdered Lee Rigby out of a feeling of compassion for those Muslims killed by Western, especially British, armed forces. For them it was an act of retribution and deterrence. Presumably they answered ‘yes’ to the three questions above. There are two compassionate forces here, not just one.

Projects such as Out of Sight, Out of Mind are invaluable in helping us visualize deaths which have long been out of sight, often hidden. But how we act on this information will depend to a large extent on how we answer the above three questions.

Knowing, however, is not enough. To act, one has to feel.

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