Thursday, April 05, 2007

Genocide and paralysis

Do people ignore mass killings because they lack compassion or is it because they become overwhelmed by the numbers and thus paralyzed into inaction?

The international community seems very slow in reacting to genocide. We need only to remember what happened in Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda or has been happening in Darfur to know this is true. Paul Slovic argues in Foreign Policy magazine that it is not lack of compassion but
… it is our inability to comprehend numbers and relate them to mass human tragedy that stifles our ability to act. It’s not that we are insensitive to the suffering of our fellow human beings. In fact, the opposite is true. Just look at the extraordinary efforts people expend to rescue someone in distress, such as an injured mountain climber. It’s not that we only care about victims we identify with—those of similar skin color, or those who live near us: Witness the outpouring of aid to victims of the December 2004 tsunami. Yet, despite many brief episodes of generosity and compassion, the catalogue of genocide—the Holocaust, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur—continues to grow. The repeated failure to respond to such atrocities raises the question of whether there is a fundamental deficiency in our humanity: a deficiency that—once identified—could be overcome.

The psychological mechanism that may play a role in many, if not all, episodes in which mass murder is neglected involves what’s known as the “dance of affect and reason” in decision-making. Affect is our ability to sense immediately whether something is good or bad. But the problem of numbing arises when these positive and negative feelings combine with reasoned analysis to guide our judgments, decisions, and actions. Psychologists have found that the statistics of mass murder or genocide—no matter how large the numbers—do not convey the true meaning of such atrocities. The numbers fail to trigger the affective emotion or feeling required to motivate action. In other words, we know that genocide in Darfur is real, but we do not “feel” that reality. In fact, not only do we fail to grasp the gravity of the statistics, but the numbers themselves may actually hinder the psychological processes required to prompt action.

When writer Annie Dillard was struggling to comprehend the mass human tragedies that the world ignores, she asked, “At what number do other individuals blur for me?” In other words, when does “compassion fatigue” set in? Our research suggests that the “blurring” of individuals may begin as early as the number two.

If this is true, it’s no wonder compassion is absent when deaths number in the hundreds of thousands. But there is a difference between merely being aware of this diminishing sensitivity and appreciating its broader implications. This is especially true when you consider how difficult it is to create, let alone sustain, the emotional responses needed to spark action.

In light of our historical and psychological deficiencies, it is time to re-examine this human failure. Because if we are waiting for a tipping point to spur action against genocide, we could be waiting forever.
That last point is critical. If we are ever to move in a timely manner to stop mass crimes against humanity we need to recognize there is an ingrained reluctance to act. The tipping point should always be now.

You can read his entire article here.

1 comment:

Red Jenny said...

Very interesting... and very true.

I think it is more effective to tell a story. A story of one person or family affected by a situation, for example. The idea is to create empathy - when the reader identifies with the person in the story, and says: "There but by the grace of God go I"

I was thinking about this in the context of Iraq and the lack of electricity. Most homes get electricity only, say, 3 hours a day. That sounds like a lot (3 whole hours!) until you start thinking about something simple: food spoilage. It's already hard enough to get food to eat, and it can't even be safely stored without consistent electricity to power the refrigerator.

For some reason this made me really sad when I thought about that, even though it's but a tiny part of the totality of suffering.

On top of the fear of dying, this to me highlights the total lack of normalcy of an Iraqi life.