American Empathy in the Twenty-First Century

by Guy Somerset 

Although personal anecdotes should be eschewed in professional writing, there is a rather staid acquaintance of mine of a certain age who is unable to bid farewell to his infant grandchildren without breaking down in tears after each visit. He isn't a particularly emotional fellow, and his reaction is not uncommon, yet it occurs with regularity.

 This scene is mentioned only by way of contrast to what we observe of eye-witnesses, close friends, and intimate relations in recent mass casualty events who often display a marked lack of emotion. There are very seldom tears and almost no uncontrollable breakdowns. Rarely do we see unscripted eruptions of rage as would be likely given the endless penchant for "Live!" television interviews after an ordeal. Not once, to my knowledge, has anyone ever directed antipathy toward the interviewers as would be predictable given human nature and the percentage of aggrieved subjects; high numbers of people in extremely trying circumstances and it is inevitable someone will erupt - still no one ever does. Why?

 Or, more to the point, Why not? An argument could be advanced the parties in question are suffering variations of shock. Yet all of them? In every instance? Dubious. Another more plausible explanation would be the influence of strong narcotics. Tranquilizers (under various monikers) are widespread today. It would not be surprising if a majority of students were medicated on a given day quite irrespective of any nearby shooting. Though, again, the uniformity of passivity approaches levels inviting suspicion. A mundane case could be made the media are experts at screening who they put on the air. Although this too gives pause, given the media has proven to be expert at little else.

 So where are we left after eliminating the most reasonable rationales for why individuals who have just endured exceedingly traumatic incidents appear completely nonplussed?

 To my mind there are dual outstanding possibilities, uniformly terrifying. The first is the "conspiracy theorists" are correct and there exists a wide-ranging plot to falsify horrific incidents on a nationwide scale for purposes of institutional change. Given the history of politics we cannot immediately discount a position that public events may be manipulated. However the involvement of non-political parties (i.e. civilians) and non-military participants makes such claimsexceedingly difficult to credit. Including the aggressors, victims, family members, witnesses, nearby locals, etc. would require a cast of thousands. Even in the most restricted circumstance, at least of hundreds.

 On an extremely limited basis where partakers could be tightly managed such may be possible. When we include multitudes which must remain silent it seems totally implausible. Moreover, consider the problem of those "victims" who of necessity would permanently vanish and this appears impossible. All the more so when there have been very few people in history (and certainly not recent history) who have managed to successfully falsify their own deaths. Granted, it may be easier if facilitated by a complicit government but on the whole the scenario is too incredible; even outlandish.

 Thus we are left with the alternative possibility, which to many is far more unsettling than any secretive cabal in high office. It is simply that the American populace has become so desensitized by its mental diet of gore and anguish that in many instances it actually welcomes the opportunity to participate in a macabre spectacle.

 This would explain why alleged friends of victims grin when recounting tales; they are merely pleased to be on television. It would elucidate why fathers and mothers of the dead shed no tears when they appear before the camera, our Great Red Eye of Babel; they have become feature players in this Parable of the Pathetic. Prior they were all secretaries or accountants or whatever else with only a pension before them. Now? They have a lifetime retelling the narrative of how they became an Important Person in the life of the state. Where once this distinction was secured by talent or creation, the contemporary avenue to fame and fortune is mere suffering. A natural and inevitable extension of the welfare state is a state of moral depravity.

 There are fiduciary benefits of being bereaved. In fact, the equation can be expanded to encompass the entire culture. Penny-ante drug-dealers whose lives weren't worth two cents to anyone before being slammed into a police wagon are miraculously valued in death at $6 million or more. A wounded-warrior shot numerous times (and by all accounts a genuine hero) attempted to raise $10,000 on the internet and has received over $775,000 as of this writing. (Surpassing the lifetime gain of a typical community college graduate.) None of which is to particularly impugn though it does demonstrate the commoditization of tragedy.

 Likewise could be a generational distinction caused by proliferation of simulated participatory violence from video games where graphic killing is rewarded to enjoying tens of thousands of televised murders. Indeed, the most popular American entertainment programs are How to Get Away with Murder and The Walking Dead with millions of fan(atic)s. There is a TED talk about the ill-effects of long-term viewing of pornography on the brain. Why should it differ from watching people shot in the head?

 Far be it from me to chastise or denounce. (Alas, I am as guilty as any, having viewed with revulsion the most recent episode of Law & Order: SVU.) This is not a remonstrance; only a review of why there is a palpable lack of demonstrative empathy by those apparently most affected by modern massacres. Even so, this explanation is as accurate a reasoning as any and far more likely than some.

 Still, when a father jokes with reporters before a press conference on his injured child? When the sister of a shooter smirks for the cameras during her close-ups? When eye-witnesses describe their professor assassinated at point-blank range before them with a soft voice and seductive come-hither stare?

 All this makes one weep for society. How many more generations before none will even be able to cry?

Guy Somerset 

Also read: Americans, never give up your guns

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Author`s name Guy Somerset