Empathic Myopia

by digby

Glenn Greenwald points out another example of the ongoing right wing incoherence and hypocrisy, this time over their rending of garments at the treatment of the American Christians detained in Haiti. This case is an unusually striking example of such incoherence and hypocrisy because it features suspects who are sympathetic to the right solely due to the fact that they are white Americans from the midwest who are affiliated with a conservative church.

Setting aside the glaring examples Glenn cites of innocent Muslims caught up in such situations tortured and shipped to Guantanamo for years on end without any due process at all who get absolutely no sympathy from these same people, imagine if these were black Jehovah's Witnesses accused of kidnapping white children under similar circumstances right here in the United States. I don't think you'd see any demands from these newly born international human rights advocates for the ACLU to intervene here either.

There's something about the American right that requires a very specific degree of identification for them to be empathetic and it goes beyond race, although race is certainly a factor. They see these people in that jail in Haiti and see themselves --- nice "normal" Americans --- and they feel their pain at being wrongly accused. They suddenly demand that human rights be universal and stand firmly behind the constitutional tenet that one is innocent until proven guilty. They are aghast that these people could be ill treated in prison or not given all the safeguards we were all promised in their 8th grade history book.

But they are incapable of extending that same identification to "others," people who aren't "like" them, that they couldn't be related to or who don't speak the same language. Those people aren't Real people. And for many of them, that's not just something they apply to non-Americans, but to their fellows as well. They assume that suspects are guilty until proven innocent all the time in America.

The Real American tribe is (mostly) white, socially traditional and politically conservative. People who fit that criteria are, quite literally, the only people they care about. (At the more extreme edge, they are the only people they think are really people.) They simply can't empathize with those who don't fit that mold.

For most of us, this all comes down to what I call the Count of Monte Cristo effect. I read that book as a kid and the horror of a system which would allow an innocent person to be locked up forever so seared itself into my psyche that I automatically understood from that point on what injustice was. I didn't need to be a Frenchman in the Napoleonic era to relate. I'd been inside Edmond Dantès head, I'd been Edmond Dantès, and I'd felt, as a human being, what it was to be falsely accused and imprisoned.

I assume that most people have some sort of similar empathetic epiphany as children --- maybe it's just recognizing the hurt you've felt in the eyes of another. But it's fundamental to human development. Why, for some people, it stops at their own family or group, I don't know. But it's clear that among a great many people it does. I hear it every day among some of our most powerful leaders who blithely assert that terrorist suspects don't deserve the same rights as Americans. And yet, they know, that a large number of those terrorist suspects turned out to be innocent. They simply can't extend the horror they would feel if they found themselves in similar circumstances, to these other people. They simply can't accord them basic common humanity.

Even as a matter of self-preservation, I guess they just rely on the belief that their fellow tribesmen will recognize them and come to their rescue if they should ever find themselves in such circumstances. (Or they are so lacking in imagination that the idea that it could happen to them is unfathomable.) But as these folks down in Haiti are finding, their tribe isn't all powerful and they can't always fix things for them. It turns out that having a rule of law commonly respected the world over really comes in handy at a time like this. And every time the US government chisels away at our system of justice in the name of "protecting ourselves", or some yahoo prattles on about how someone doesn't deserve the same rights as somebody else, that fundamental protection gets weaker and weaker.