Friday, 20 March 2009

tragedy and empathy

My flatmate has a very blunt way of expressing himself. Particularly after a few drinks. Well, more provocative than anything. As he and his drinking buddies woke me from my painfully disturbed night of sleep (I woke Saturdays, the rest of the world does not...), the talked animatedly. By the time half their number had departed and I´d finished showering and drinking my coffee they´d started a full-blown row that had brought an irate neighbour to the door. "Hombre, te aseguro, si podría callarles, lo haría... yo, yo no salí anoche, me he leventado por el trabajo, que comenza en dos horas. Yo preferiera quedar en mi cama..." Enraged neighbour went away more sympathetic than angry.

I settled down to follow their arguments, and turn the tone a little more comradely. Two friends had been talking of the tragic turn of events in Germany, where a seriously disturbed young man had ended the lives of several former schoolmates before taking his own. My flatmate, as he has expressed on a previous occasion to similar effect, had bluntly announced that he didn´t give a fuck about such things, just as the others didn´t care about the people killed everyday around the world, for reasons no purer than those concocted by this maniac.

Outrage ensued as the others castigated him for his callous, uncaring attitude toward the unfortunate dead. As I attempted to cool the temperate I took his side, by way of clarifying his arguments in the reasonable terms of the barrack room lawyer - "we´re not asking for anything unreasonable, sir". When I took his argument up the more reasonable it seemed to me. It´s easy to feel and express sympathy for the victims of arbitrary violence: to declare "we are all Marta" or to put up a poster of Madaleine McCann. After all, what do you actually have to do other than feel it. Marta´s killer is in prison, the police are/were searching for Maddie, however intense your empathy, there was nothing to be done.

My other friend was telling me, "we all know how terrible things are in Africa (sic), but this is different". Maybe it was the cultural proximity, the deliberate nature of the atrocity, but it was definitely different. For me the difference, and the reason why we don´t feel so profoundly for the horrors of everyday life, is the way in which we are responsible. Sometimes regular people carry acts of extreme brutality. No-one need condemn them, they are so obviously horrific that no one could. The authorities are dealing with them, they agree that these are contemptible actions. With the effects of poverty or tyranny, society, at least the power structures of our society are responsible. They will not be punished, things will not change, they will not be pursued, caught, made to pay.

There´s something to do about all that endemic stuff, something to take responsibility for. The thinks that challenge us, weigh more heavily than the things that we can feel strongly about, but that call for us to do nothing. The way society kills people is neglected even when close to home, even if it´s pensioners dying out of the lack of heating in the Winter, or for lack of aircon in the Summer. If the killing of the elderly through neglect had the same emotional impact as Marta´s murder, we´d have been storming parliament long ago.

This functionless empathy (Diana Syndrome you might call it) is a calling card to others in a destructive callous world. We all want to know that we aren´t entirely emotionless, that the tragedies of others still exercise. Safely expressed, without the need to do anything. Demonstrating against terrorism the same. We shall not be bowed by your bombs, as we support the powers that be in dealing with your tiny threat.

It´s understandable, but ultimately worthless, even self-indulgent. Which is why to some of us, the hollowness of it makes us angry.

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