Blog 2020

Sympathy and Empathy

As an exercise, I often try to understand why people do terrible things.

I don’t know if it comes from being a writer, and trying to understand and ascribe motives to a villain (or merely a villainous character), or if it comes from a place of compassion, trying to understand the nature of strife in the world.  Maybe both?  I first really tried to understand a person’s motivations in 1995, with the Oklahoma City Bombing.  The attack on the Alfred Murray Federal Building was one of the earliest terrorists I can recall (the ’93 World Trade Center Bombing was too esoteric to grasp for me, I think).

I subscribe to the Hercule Poirot school of thought when it comes to violent crime, that they are aberrations.  Much like cancer in a cell, they are ‘natural aberrations’, against which society must forever struggle, but aberrations none the less.  While I think some people are instinctively more heinous than others, I don’t think people are ‘bad’ (to put it in an inaccurate parlance).  I think people are inherently good, but that good is easily warped or made antagonistic due to circumstances.  But it is the circumstances that make people act badly, act violently.

A common theme for me is to study water and people’s access to it.  A surprising number of the world’s ills trace back to droughts.  The first genocide o the 21st Century, the Darfur Genocide, was carried out in western Sudan has its roots in water access between nomadic tribes and local farmers (though there are obviously many additional factors).  The Bundy Standoff between cattle ranchers and the United States Land Management Bureau was likewise rooted in grazing and watering access.  Again, an oversimplification with additional factors at play, but water still proves to be a common element.

I’m of the mind that if we look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (water and food at the base, prestige and friendship towards the middle, and creative processes at the top), we often find where violence begins to present itself.  As one travels down the pyramid, denying (or being denied) the needs, violence as an outcome becomes increasingly likely.

But mere denial or lack of access isn’t a binary thing.  A person doesn’t have a need met, or not.  The perception of it being met can be very powerful.  Or the perception that a need is denied.

Consider Donald Trump (unfortunately).  For a large swath of Americans, he is meeting a need that they haven’t had met in years (if at all).  He is helping them achieve self-actualization and a sense of accomplishment.  Those are high, high, high up on Maslow’s Hierarchy.  Is Trump ACTUALLY helping them meet those needs?  No.  But they feel like he is, and that sense of belief is powerful.  So powerful, it can override unmet needs lower on the hierarchy (like safety and rest).

Back to the Oklahoma City Bombing, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols perpetrated the attack in response to the 1992 standoff at Waco between the FBI/ATF and the Branch Davidians.  They looked at the raid and saw federal overreach and draconian tactics used against religious liberty.  Accurate or not, appropriate or not, you can at least momentarily sympathize with the perspective.  Just about everyone in the modern age has experienced some kind of misjustice at the hands of their government.  Whether federal or local, whether valid or imagined, we’ve all had at least one moment where those with more societal power than we used that power in a way we felt was unfair.

Learning and understanding these motivations is both helpful and horrifying.  It is helpful because it shows that even the ‘evilest’ among us are still humans, with whom we share a lot.  It is on that commonality that we can make a connection, make an understanding, make a stride to better understand and care for one another.

But it is also unsettling to confront the possibility that anyone could end up so evil.  ‘I would never do that’, we say to ourselves…but then contemplate Maslow’s Hierarchy.  Think about where you would put that line before violence became possible for you.  Because that line is somewhere there, and it is a sobering thought to realize it may not be as far down the pyramid as you might want to believe.

It’s also terrifying because you realize that a person’s perception can be as powerful as their reality, if not even override it.  Their perception, like a drug, can convince them to trade their safety, their security, their love, their food, their everything, for a need at the very apex of that pyramid.  And how do you combat that warped perception?  How do you show a person how wrong they are?  No easy task, that.  In fact, I’m not sure we have a reliable way to do that.

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