Empathy and Historical Tragedies

Recently, I stumbled upon a lecture given by cultural historian Roman Krznaric — whose link can be found here — arguing for an new approach to individual empowerment. Rather than cater to the old psychiatric methodologies (i.e. introspective therapy), the 21st century should adopt a new, more radical, approach in solving individual crises. He calls this new approach “outrospection” and it rests wholly on empathy and in discovering oneself through the shoes of others. As fascinating as this is, I was particularly struck by his categorization of a different kind of empathy I had not fully considered — collective empathy and how historical tragedies can be explained by its lack thereof.

The Nazi establishment enjoying a performance by the the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

Whenever we think of the man’s greatest evil, a time when the moral compass was shattered, we immediately point to the atrocities of Nazism and all its collaborators; how were so many individuals persuaded to commit horrors without regard for life? It appears that the proper diagnosis would be a deficiency of empathy — in particular, a deficiency of collective empathy. Despite the fact that mass killings were structurally instituted as policy, what makes the tragedy all the more frightening is that they were done, and popularly supported, by seemingly ‘average’ people. While people were being tortured, others in the German establishment were enjoying themselves.  The disconnect between the excruciating torture perpetrated and the indulgences of the Nazi personnel blatantly points toward a lack of empathy. They outright became numb to the cries of broken families and killed innocence.

The Cathedral of Light, which was the main aesthetic feature of the Nuremberg Rallies.

And so they occupied themselves with aesthetics, gluttony, and all kinds of excess. To think that Heinrich Himmler would go to work daily, nonchalantly sign degrees instituting murder, and then return from work to sweet orchestrated music by Richard Wagner at the Berlin State Opera House is unthinkable. To them, this was routine. And they were also suffering from a grave deficiency of empathy. The German experience during the Third Reich was based on that idea that this was all historical necessity — that any perceived ‘injustice’ (which was oftentimes well-hidden from public view) is inevitable and crucial in maintaining German hegemony and power.  To further solidify this point, giant structures were constructed to show the awe and might of Nazi rule. This became especially prevalent during the Nuremberg Rallies. All of this was tied together delicately by the feeling of German community — a type of pseudo-empathy that only extended as far as the Germans themselves. For blood and soil only, Blut und Boden, as it was called; this is the perverted empathy they were attempting to facilitate, one based solely on ultra-nationalistic pride and collective narcissism.

Likewise, it can be said that every great historical tragedy involved a deprivation of genuine empathy. When the public becomes so alienated from suffering, suffering is allowed to occur forthright. Popular silence becomes a catalyst for horrors, sadly. Although, conversely, empathy itself is responsible for bringing human betterment with each progressive epoch of development. Human rights was built on abolitionism, by bringing slaves’ suffering in full view of the English commoner. Deeply troubled, this consequently lead to the banning of the Slave Trade in 1807 and of slavery in 1833. Similarly, during the height of early industrialization, abusive child labor and horrible working conditions became so horrifying that the public could ignore it no longer. The acted on their empathy, thus proving it had the power to stimulate social, economic, and political change.

However, the 21st century has seemingly been plagued by an absence of empathy. Individuals repeat the same demeaning lines when asked about deplorable sweatshop labor — “it is necessary” or, more ridiculously, “it’s better than them having no job at all.” Individuals experience poverty as a commodified phenomenon, as token commercials begging for donations, rather than as a real perceivable horror. What if individuals were placed in these conditions? What if they were made to experience the toil of Third World production, the losing of limbs just for an article of cheap clothing? Ironically, in a world so interconnected with technology, empathy is fleeting. Perhaps the only proper remedy is to evoke and cultivate, what Roman Krznaric calls, a culture of outrospection.

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