The Psychology of Compassion
holds us back from stopping genocide.
Photo: © MUSTAFA OZER/AFP/Getty Images
I've recently come across this pointed essay, "Numbed by Numbers" by psychologist Paul Slovic in Foreign Policy. (The photograph above accompanied the story.) Slovic's view dovetails nicely with my own arguments about the 'Arithmetic of Compassion.'
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 potential issue between us is important though. My sense is that the problem lies with the expectation that images of large-scale mayhem and devastation can and ought to elicit compassion. In other words, it is compassion that is inadequate or inappropriate. Slovic may be saying that the problem resides in our sheer inability to conceptualize large numbers. (Or perhaps that it also resides there.) The inference would be that regardless of the moral response we seek to elicit or instill, there are more or less hard-wired cognitive constraints on our ability to respond to suffering on a massive scale because we cannot comprehend it.
As his final sentence makes clear, Slovic is far from fatalistic here. My inclination is to pick up on a subtlety in his remark: "it is our inability to comprehend numbers and relate them to mass human tragedy that stifles our ability to act." We need not only have some ways of representing large numbers (this may best be done by indirection, by showing photo shopped images of the sort Chris Jordan fabricates rather than lots of photographs of victims) but we need ways of relating numbers to tragedy and remedies. Since, as I have argued here before, people think with images and not just about them (or what the images show) we need to facilitate their ability to do so.