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January 26, 2013

Measuring the Erosion of Empathy – Deconstructing the Science of Evil

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
― Edmund Burke

Science of Evil - book coverEvil exists in the world. It seems almost impossible to read the daily news without coming across stories of great injustice and malevolence brought about by human cruelty.  Rather than dismissing these acts of evil as mere acts of insanity, however, it can be highly valuable to investigate what causes people to act so destructively. Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen’s book, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, does just this. Baron-Cohen, a psychologist specializing in autism, suggests that “evil” is more properly defined as a complete lack of empathy, the ability to understand and respond emotionally to others.

As he explains in the book’s opening chapter, Baron-Cohen has long been intrigued by the nature of cruelty. At age seven his father told him of the Nazi atrocities and the images of the suffering of the Jews never left him.

“Today, almost a half century after my father’s revelations to me about the extremes of human behavior, my mind is still exercised by the same, single question: How can we understand human cruelty? What greater reason for writing a book than the persistence of a single question that can gnaw at one’s mind all of one’s conscious life?”

Simon Baron CohenThe Science of Evil argues that empathy is distributed throughout the population as a bell curve. Some have a tremendous amount of empathy while others, those often labeled as psychopaths or other psychiatric diagnoses, reside on the low end of the bell curve. Baron-Cohen explains that the roots of empathy are derived from both nature and nurture. Those with little or no empathy may have different brain structure and functionality or may have suffered environmental factors such as childhood neglect or abuse.

By substituting the word “evil” with the term “empathy erosion”, where people turn other people into objects, Baron-Cohen takes on a more scientific approach to understanding why people become capable of malevolence. He provides examples of empathy erosion, or extreme human cruelty, around the planet as well as a highly scientific exploration of the causes of this lack of empathy.

The erosion of empathy: Simon Baron Cohen at TEDxHousesofParliament

The Science of Evil may be a difficult book to read. Baron-Cohen does not shy away from detailing and exploring case after case of almost unimaginable brutality and cruelty.  However, by revealing the origins of cruelty and illustrating a new way to think about the nature of evil, Baron-Cohen has laid the foundation for a superior understanding of this human condition.  And hopefully, this understanding will bring about a better way of combating, or perhaps even preventing, future injustices in our world.


January 6, 2013

Forgetting to Remember – The Scourge of Generational Amnesia

A sharp tip glinted out of the tree having traveled through from the other side. Chopping the wood open revealed the small bullet to be as shiny as the day it had been fired over 60 years before as Allied troops pressed into Germany in the closing months of World War II.

German soldiers in forest WWIIAnd there were more. This time a dull, blunt and rounded chunk of metal embedded deep into another tree— the remnant of heavy machine gun fire and a very tangible reminder of the hell that had been unleashed here.  We were told it is common to find bullets and shrapnel embedded in these trees.

We had come to the forest to cut a Christmas tree in the late days of December, an ancient tradition in this part of western Germany. The families of whom we were the privileged guests showed us around these quiet hills which, cloaked in freezing mist and joined by warm mulled wine with even warmer company, were a memorable part of this year’s Christmas for us.

The contrast for me was profound, at once a reminder of how far Europe has travelled away from its blood soaked past but also of the risks that never really go away.

After all there we were— a family from England who had met a family from Germany on holiday in France—standing in beautiful countryside and sharing traditions. That was the progress part.

But there, in this beautiful wooded countryside, we stood among the trees in the same forest where our grandfathers had slaughtered one another.  The violence of war had been visited on this place as a result of a political elite’s collective failure to address the rise of extremism, the wave of which they caused by first failing to manage the global economy.

A Not so Golden Dawn in Greece

Sadly that last bit about the failure of elites and the rise of extremism is an increasingly accurate description of the countries of Southern Europe today. When I was in Liberia earlier this year I met a Greek guy in his mid-thirties, about the same age as me.  He had never been to Africa before and ended up in a fairly random job in West Africa simply because he had been so desperate to get out of Greece. He gave accounts of elderly Greek people being wheeled out of care homes and left on the streets because their families could no longer afford the fees. That was terrible enough.

Golden Dawn leader at press conferenceGolden Dawn party leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos at a news briefing

But then he mentioned something in passing which was even more troubling. Before he left Greece, he had voted for the fascist Golden Dawn party, who now occupy seats in the Greek Parliament. When I asked him why, he assured me that he wasn’t a fascist—after all, he reminded me,  he had “… moved to Africa.” His reason for voting for the fascist party before leaving Greece was that the political system “needed a shock.” It could have been straight out of the mouth of a suddenly impoverished 1930s worker in Weimar Germany, casting his vote for the Nazis, to “send a message.”

Hitler Goes Retail in India

While in India the appeal of Hitler seems to lie in a perception that he was a firm leader who “got things done.”  Many businesses now appear to be cashing in on the Nazi brand, and sales of Mein Kampf are described as “brisk.”

hitler store in IndiaHitler Store in India

Those Indians who seem to admire Nazi Germany do not do so because they are filled with hate or are anti-Semitic, but are responding instead to the appeal of charismatic, strong leadership.

Remembering Not to Forget the Past

And therein lies the problem. If it is possible for the passage of time to sanitize a period even as blood drenched and cataclysmic as the Third Reich, then can we really be so complacent as to imagine it could never happen again?

That night in Germany, over more drinks and by the warmth of a fire, our hosts and I reflected on how our own generation’s world view had been shaped by the Cold War  and yet  how the fall of the Berlin Wall was now but a chapter in our children’s textbooks. To them the idea that they could be at war with each other was a bizarre notion. And yet one of our hosts described that as a young girl she had been taught how to use a rifle by her grandfather.  He was motivated by the ever-present shadow of fear that his granddaughter might face a future including a return to the carnage and mass rape that accompanied the Russian advance into Germany from the East which he had experienced first-hand.

As Europeans it is tempting sometimes to focus only on the progress we’ve made, and the EU’s role in that was recently recognised with the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize.  But the unfolding political chaos in Greece with the prospect of more countries to follow surely means that we have no room for complacency at all. And in the beautiful forests of western Germany trees bearing hidden bullets stand as silent testament to that truth.