It has been argued that without empathy – an inherent aptitude to show love and compassion for one another – man as a species might have perished long ago.
This viewpoint counters the perspective that we are naturally selfish, unruly, wicked creatures.
While the former might indeed explain our longevity, there’s validity to both of these perspectives.
Anyone wanting proof of the prevalence of our dark side need only look to the Internet, where actions based on empathy often appear to be greatly outnumbered by evidence of a nasty, brutish society.
Director Werner Herzog’s new documentary, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, touches base on some of the social nightmares the Internet has enabled – such vileness as cyberbullying, which today is an all-too common occurrence, revenge porn and other forms of personal attacks that can only be described as evil. One example of this is the experience of the Catsouras family, whose daughter Nikki died in a motor-vehicle accident in October 2006. The accident was said to have been so gruesome the coroner wouldn’t allow the parents to identify the body. However, photos taken by the California Highway Patrol were leaked online and the parents soon found images of their daughter’s remains on cruel, sadistic web pages.
The family has been fighting ever since to have the images removed. What’s worse, they also receive copies of the images by email from anonymous senders, typically masked with misleading subject headers.
Recently, we ran a story about a Malakwa couple with a child on the way who suddenly found themselves in need of an affordable place to rent – a challenge for anyone in the Shuswap’s rental market. After the story’s publication, we received two responses from people with helpful tips. The majority of the feedback, however, on our website and elsewhere on the net, has been critical of the family, particularly the man, for his current reliance on income assistance and not having a job (or jobs). Their sin of need was met not with empathy, but the self-righteous, unsympathetic judgement of the Internet.
How does this translate in the real world?
The other day my wife, while out and about with our son, witnessed a handicapped gentleman being followed by a group of older teenagers who were walking and mocking his awkward stride. It was a moment that stuck in her mind. One would like to think we’ve progressed beyond this type of behaviour.
Of course, one can’t make assumptions based on the actions of a few.
As a reporter, I hear of many inspiring stories about people, young and old, selflessly engaged in activities to benefit others. These are the bright flashes of compassion and empathy that remind us of what we can be, and inspire us to do better. Sadly, these flashes are either ephemeral or simply fail to illuminate the darkness in so many who find gratification in the condition of conflict, of everyone against everyone.