What blocks empathy?

It can be so puzzling, looking back at even quite recent history, trying to figure out “what were they thinking?” What were the people who ran Irish industrial “schools” thinking when they treated the children like shit? What were the people who screamed abuse outside Little Rock High School in 1957 thinking? What were the people who owned slaves thinking? What were the people who sold slaves thinking? What were the people who captured human beings and sold them into slavery thinking?

What were the people who stole children from unmarried mothers in Australia thinking?

Hundreds of mothers and their families gathered yesterday to hear a historic national apology from Australia’s prime minister Julia Gillard. Forced to give up their babies, these women were among the thousands of young mothers who endured a cruel and often illegal approach by governments, churches, hospitals and charities towards pregnancy out of wedlock in Australia from the 1950s to the 1970s, whereby unmarried mothers were coerced or deceived into giving up their babies to adoption by married couples.

I could see what they were thinking if it were a question of pressure and persuasion. I wouldn’t agree with it, but I could see it. But it wasn’t a question of pressure and persuasion.

The stories are nightmarish – from the abandonment by furious families of frightened, pregnant daughters into homes for wayward girls, to the truly excruciating accounts of the births themselves, where young girls were drugged during labour and forcibly restrained with pillows over their faces so they could not see their babies as they were born. It says something about how intentional the shattering of the maternal bond was that mother and baby were not even allowed to lay eyes upon one another.

One mother interviewed in the Senate committee report described what it was like to know what was coming during your pregnancy:

“I’d lie in bed every night with my arms wrapped around my baby inside of me knowing that I would never hold him after birth. I’d feel his feet and hands through my own stomach as he moved around, knowing that I wasn’t ever going to feel them after he was born. I’d talk to him and tell him that I would find him again one day and that I and his father loved him.”

The more young women resisted, the greater the malice against them – babies were pulled from clinging arms, moved to different hospitals, and dishonestly recorded as dead so as to stop young women continuing to fight for them. For the mothers who experienced these events, even the term “forced adoption” is too soft; “kidnapping newborn babies” is how they describe it.

That’s why it’s hard to figure out what they were thinking: because you would think compassion or empathy would get in the way, and it’s hard to see what kind of thinking would trump the compassion or empathy.

Maybe disgust helped. Maybe they saw the girls and young women as so disgusting that it blocked or reduced the compassion or empathy. That probably answers the other ones, too. If you feel enough disgust or contempt or hatred for a person or set of people, then your capacity for empathy may be impaired.

Andie Fox goes on to say much the same thing, but in slightly different terms.

These stories illustrate a frightening capacity to dehumanise women from the institutions involved. That these women’s own communities would believe mothers could possibly get past an experience like that, let alone forget it entirely upon leaving the hospital, is extraordinary.

It is. Hence the “what were they thinking?” Disgust is probably part of the answer.

It seems to be very, very deeply-rooted, this ready disgust for women and girls in connection with sex.

Not surprisingly, the experience of forced adoption has for many led to pathological levels of grief. An abyss of trauma opened up in their lives that engulfed the babies’ fathers, other family members, future siblings, and in many cases even the adopting parents and adopted children themselves. One mother, Julienne, described her haunting loss: “I always felt the weight of a ghost baby on my arm and never left a room without feeling that I had left something behind”.

Disgust is the parent of a lot of monsters.


  1. jamessweet says

    So, I have this story I like to tell… see, we have two dogs, and two cats who are indoor/outdoor cats (please don’t lecture me, yes I know I should keep my cats indoors — I also knew I should quit smoking for a long time before I actually did it, so repeating an argument I’m already convinced of will do no good) which means they kill a lot of small animals. Only sometimes they don’t kill them, sometimes they just mortally wound them and leave them to die.

    I feel it’s my responsibility to “finish the job” if one of my pets leaves an animal dying and in pain. But I hate it… the first time I did it, it was a juvenile chipmunk, and the poor thing is just gasping for air… how do I bring an axe-head down on a baby chipmunk? Every empathetic part of my being was telling me no, don’t hurt this cute little thing, but I also had rationally convinced myself it was the right thing.

    So what I did was I disconnected the physical actions from the result. Instead of saying to myself, “I’m going to club this baby chipmunk to death now,” I said, “I am going to raise the axe to this height, then I am going to bring my arms down rapidly so that the head of the axe strikes this location, and then I’m going to repeat the action.” Eventually, I got quite good at this: I would rehearse in my mind the physical movements I had to make to dispatch the suffering animal, without ever actually saying to myself, “I’m going to kill this thing now.”

    It’s kind of eery how effective that became with just a little bit of practice. I could perform the action completely divorced from any meaning behind it… I sorta felt queasy going to get the axe, and cleaning up afterwards, but the actual deed? Didn’t feel a thing, it was just physical movements.

    Dunno if that sheds any light…

  2. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    This is the most important question to me right now. What blocks empathy? I need to know the answer(s), incomplete though they may be. I can’t accept things as they are; there must be a way to unblock empathy or at least help people get there some of the time. I don’t think I can face the decades I have left in my life with no hope of being able to improve this—it’s too grim.

  3. says


    James – I used to have to kill mice and rats when I worked in the reptile house (and the nocturnal house, next door) at the zoo. It was horrible. I never got used to it. (Usually mice. I think only one rat. That was much worse. [shudders])

  4. says

    Josh – we know some of the things, I think. Having a group. Thinking of it as edgy, hip, challenging, rebellious, freeze peach, another George Carlin, all that. Hatred, fostered and nursed and cultivated. Thinking of it as dark, daring, radical, brave humor – Tosh.0 and all that crap.

    Disgust. Contempt. Dominance (cf Michael Kimmel on this). Resentment.

  5. karmacat says

    I think it is about seeing another person as the other – “this person is not like me, so I don’t have to have sympathy or empathy.” These people were rationalizing to themselves that they were helping the child. They wrongly assume that a single woman can’t raise a child. Or that she got pregnant while not being married, tso hen she is incapable of raising a child. I am also assuming they were not hard on the men who contributed to the pregnancy. Damn double standard. However, it is hard to really know what people were thinking without asking them.

  6. says

    Well it’s impossible to know what people were thinking without asking them (and even then), but it’s a social question more than an individual one.

    Plus we have to think about it and ask about it and try to figure it out, because it’s so central to everything. The human species has a horrible tendency to do appalling things to each other and other animals. We do want to know why.

  7. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    Thanks, O.

    Also, I didn’t mean to sound so melodramatic—it’s not like I’m suicidal or anything! It is terribly important to me, though. What’s more, I worry about how one can detect it in one’s self? What if I find that I’m doing? Would I know? How would I know?

    The pitters, of course, always maintain that we’re doing just what they do. We’re not (I really don’t think) but sometimes it feels like one is stuck being gaslighted. Am I *really* not dehumanizing?

  8. kestra says

    Don’t forget the pressure of being part of a group, which has declared since “time immemorial” that this is the Way Things Are Done. Iconoclasts are rare. No one wants to be the one who stands up and says, “Hey, this is wrong!” only to have the others disagree, or worse, ignore you.

    I think that to many atheists, especially formerly religious atheists, that social pressure may seem distant or childish, because many of us associate it with feelings we had often in Church Youth Group or during group prayer or some religious observance. I know I felt many times that this was all silly and pointless before I finally left religion. I used to ask leading questions like, “If we’re *all* ‘Children of God’, what makes Jesus so special?” But I never flat out denied the truth of religion to a religious group. I just walked away from that group when I could no longer ignore my disbelief.

    Being told by everyone around you, indeed by all of society, that this is the way things are done, that these girls need to be corrected, and that these babies will never thrive with their fallen mothers, it would take a lot of strength of character to think that may not be the case, and maybe what you’re doing is cruel. To say that aloud, even more courage. To actually *do* something about the practice, rather than just walking away, even more. And that’s not to discount the pressure to be the one source of kindness in an unkind system, which I imagine is a common motivator. Otherwise, you’re leaving the girls and babies to the sadists and power-trippers who would be drawn to that sort of environment.

  9. Acolyte of Sagan says

    I’ll add my tuppeny-worth of armchair psychology.
    It appears to me that to achieve such a level of empathy-lacking the victim is first de-humanised. The Nazi’s didn’t persecute Jewish People but simply The Jew, or the untermensch (sp?), literally the sub-human.
    To the nuns, the young mothers weren’t women as they didn’t conform to the moral and religious mores of the day; their morals were no better than the (non-human) animals, so animals they were, their babies taken from them and re-homed just as a dog breeder re-homes a litter.
    To mysogynists, women are ‘bitches’ or ‘cows’ or ‘birds’, of course.
    To bullies, their victims are ‘worms’ and ‘weeds’, just things to squash or eradicate.

    There are those who simply enjoy hurting others, of course, but in order for large-scale cruelty or persecution to take effect, the simplest route is to first de-humanise the victims.

  10. Bruce Gorton says


    It isn’t disgust, disgust tells you to avoid something. It isn’t contempt, contempt tells you not to bother.

    It is the righteous feeling of us being us and them being them. Think about the slavers who argued that slavery was bringing civilisation to the ‘savages’ , think of the Catholic Church which very likely felt very righteous generous and kind with the Irish orphanages. Think about how so many Islamists are willing to throw acid in their own little girls’ faces because those girls looked at a boy.

    The compassion is still there, I remember once reading about how sorry for themselves the Nazis felt having to bear feeling it, but it is overridden by that tribal instinct.

    And many missionaries believe themselves to be ‘saving’ those people they are ultimately destroying with witch hunts, as do those Islamists invading nations like Mali. They believe themselves to be doing good, helping others see the light of their culture.

    It isn’t about hate, it is about trying to enforce cultural norms, it is about having hard and fast rules for who gets to be “us” and who gets to be “them.” That is enforced both outwards, with the mistreatment of people of other ideologies, races, genders, sexual orientations or income strata, or inwardly with the ideals like “honour”, “brotherhoods” and the like.

    It isn’t actually the least honourable cultures which are the most vicious – it is the most honourable. Those cultures that take saving face as being more important than life, heck more important than love.

    It is in part the cancer that is family values. Family values is denying a child an education, healthcare and food because family values say that child is the family’s responsibility, not valued by society as an individual but simply a part of a larger whole.

    But mostly it is the idea that morality can be an absolute, that inflexible unbending obedience to the rules because tradition, or religion, or the tribal elders/party leaders say so is good behaviour.

  11. sailor1031 says

    I think the last half of the C19 and first half or so of C20 were pretty brutal for a lot of people, not just those who had violated “the rules”. In schools for instance corporal punishment was so common and ubiquitous no-one could get through school without being beaten pretty unmercifully. It was a hangover from the C18 where, according to T H White’s “Age of scandal”, a peer could remark “when I was at school I was flogged every day but one. On that day I was flogged twice.” During the C19 this style of barbarity abated not at all. During the C20 it became slowly, gradually less common. In this cultural environment the religions were more powerful than they are today and they took to use of flogging with a will, especially the catholic religious, believing in the words of Steinbeck “in those days the rod was considered an instrument of virtue”. I think we see the coarsening effects of this kind of treatment in the way those who had been brutally treated continued to mete out that same treatment to others when they had the power.

    We see this attitude even yet in such practices as student hazing, the VMI ratline ‘breakout’ & etc. It’s the attitude of “I had to suffer this so I’m going to make you suffer”.

    BTW I may be wrong but it’s been my impression that brutal treatment was a bit more brutal in irish society and persisted later into the late C20 than elsewhere. I’ve certainly heard many a daunting tale of the irish christian brothers from irish friends.

  12. smhll says

    It is in part the cancer that is family values. Family values is denying a child an education, healthcare and food because family values say that child is the family’s responsibility, not valued by society as an individual but simply a part of a larger whole.

    Like a lot of people, I have a family that I value. But when I hear a conservative Republican say “family values”, I hear (cough) “patriarchy”. That seems to be the ‘value’ that they want to reinforce. Very rigid roles of yesteryear.

  13. Sastra says

    I can’t quite bring myself to read the stories in the link, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a large part of the rationalization had to do with the authorities seeing their motivations as well-intended towards the mothers themselves. “Raising a child on your own, that’s hard. Too hard. And stealing the babies before the mothers have a chance to get “attached” was an act of kindness, really. These young women don’t know it — can’t know it — but we’re doing all this for their own good. Some day they’ll thank us. Probably. I’m sure I would, if I was in that situation. Maybe.”

    Don’t underestimate how easy it is to see yourself as the Good Guy. The victims were probably not so much de-humanized as infantilized, seen as mentally and emotionally incapable of knowing what’s best for the baby or for themselves. If the perpetrators thought about the future, they may have just assumed the women would have matured enough to finally see it the same way they did.

  14. great1american1satan says

    I thought about this recently and I could be using my terms all wrong, but what I see from the antifeminists often looks like a failure of Theory of Mind. They fail to realize other people have thoughts and feelings that have nothing to do with them.

    Take Reap’s first blowup. He perceived some cuss-worthy slight from Stephanie and went berserk, because he perceived it as some huge insult. Stephanie wasn’t even thinking about the issue enough to have insulting ideas about the guy until he freaked out. So basically, he was assuming all sorts of thoughts about her as being directly relevant to himself, because the world revolves around him, right?

    I know that when I’ve made social mistakes that made women feel uncomfortable (under the influence of hormones that fortunately reduced in power at about age 22), I had some strange idea that my lust didn’t stop with me – that the world around me was as demented as I was. Looking back, it really does feel like my sense of other people as people was being kneecapped by that intense teenage lust, and probably aided by a society eager to sell me the object-subject relationship with regards to sex.

    A recent post at Manboobz features this quote (about Adria Richards), which shows that failure to imagine other people as having an existence beyond your own: “I can only conclude that women attend conferences for the purpose of being outraged and to shame any unsuspecting male.”

  15. says

    Bruce –

    I remember once reading about how sorry for themselves the Nazis felt having to bear feeling it

    I think you read that here! Or the old B&W. I’ve talked about it. I got it from Hannah Arendt. (Who is required reading on this subject. As is Montagne, as is Judith Shklar, as is the Milgram experiment.)

  16. says

    great1 – no I don’t think you’re using the term all wrong, and I think that too is a big factor.

    I think there are a lot of causes/enablers, a lot of ways in, so I don’t think it makes sense to say it’s us v them but not disgust, or v.v.

    Bruce, disgust doesn’t always lead to avoidance, full stop. Just for one thing, it’s not always possible to avoid. Avoidance is probably why disgust evolved, but that doesn’t mean that’s what it’s confined to now that it has.

  17. Aratina Cage says

    Disgust is probably part of the answer.
    It seems to be very, very deeply-rooted, this ready disgust for women and girls in connection with sex.

    Naturally, the best way to neutralize this deep-rooted feeling for women and girls in connection with sex is to invoke it more often and make it common parlance, right? Right? (*grumble grumble*)

  18. machintelligence says

    No small part of the problem is that we are all generalizing from a sample of one. We cannot know how it feels to be anyone besides ourselves, although we might try.
    Before you criticize someone, always walk a mile in their shoes. That way, if they take umbrage, you have a mile head start, and they are barefoot. */snark*

  19. Bjarte Foshaug says

    My hypothesis is that there isn’t even anything to “block” in the first place, i.e. empathy for people outside our narrow circle of family and friends isn’t some “default setting” that comes by itself unless something blocks it, but the tendency to dehumanize is something that must be actively unlearned.

  20. says

    …[I] wouldn’t be surprised if a large part of the rationalization had to do with the authorities seeing their motivations as well-intended towards the mothers themselves.

    @Sastra (160 March 25, 2013 at 1:24 pm

    Maybe ‘a large part of the rationalisation’ for ‘their motivations’ goes back a very long way – even to medieval times – where Catholicism is concerned. After all, it’s well known that the latter still abides in the dark ages on issues pertaining to same.

    Just two examples of RCC antediluvian thinking:

    Clergy routinely warned believers that children conceived on holy days would be born leprous, epileptic, diabolically possessed, blind, or crippled.

    Or that:

    Canon law until 1917 labelled contraception as murder.


  21. says

    Bjarte, there’s at least some evidence though that shows that empathy is a default setting. Studies at the Max Planck Inst. for example in which toddlers help strangers. The tester “accidentally” drops something then feigns being unable to reach it, and very young children will help.

  22. says

    What were the people who ran Irish industrial “schools” thinking when they treated the children like shit?


    They were thinking in a similar vein to that of which Sastra points out @16:

    …[s]eeing their motivations as well-intended…

    The religious at Goldenbridge were convinced they were doing good for the betterment of children. I also think that by punishing the latter so harshly, that they really thought they were doing the Lord’s work, in making them better future citizen’s than that of their fallen mothers. The fallen women were seen as an abominable disgrace to holy Catholic Ireland; and as a result of their sins, must – at every hands turn – be denigrated via their children. The children were flogged to bits every morning of their lives for minor infractions. They had to hold their wet sheets up whilst the nun in charge reminded them of how despicable their parents were. Children were made to wear soiled nightdresses for a week at a time to show other children that dirtiness of any kind was unacceptable. Dirty underwear was hung up for all the institutional world to see. Children were metaphorically hung out to dry. Those parents who did not toe the ‘sexual purity’ line… well, their offspring must be made to suffer at the hands of the cruel religious.

    Anything that came out of the body at the wrong time was deemed dirty. dirty. dirty. and that included babies, who were born when they should not have been born. Period

    They were thinking that the next best thing to Godliness was cleanliness on all human levels.

    Goldenbridge Industrial *School*: Twisted Sisters by Peter and Leni Gillman 1999 http://wp.me/p1QvX3-Tu

  23. jmb says

    I don’t buy it. I don’t buy any atom of “good will” towards the victims from the perpetrators. When people with empathy towards their victims have to hurt them, we feel distress — as when putting down a dying animal, or just giving a sick one medicine that hurts it — we cry, we apologize, we feel TERRIBLE and we try to make it up to our pet or the wild animal being treated. Because we SEE its pain, and we feel a grief in sympathy for it. Even more so, to people that we care about!

    Find me ONE SINGLE INSTANCE of these nuns, these oh-so-holy schoolmasters and adoptioneers, showing grief or distress or sympathy to the people they were hurting.

    Just one?

    I’ve never seen it in person, from the godly parents who claim “it hurts me more than it hurts you” and “I only do it for your own good” –just smug self-satisfaction, and an almost sexual, cathartic gratification after the rage and beating was over. Maybe a little embarrassment and discomfort, quickly gotten rid of by saying, “Why did you make me hit you? You shouldn’t have made me lose my temper–”

    Which is not an apology at all.

  24. says

    When two nuns who ran the Magdalen laundries were asked about an apology from the religious orders,

    Sister A said:

    Apologise for what? Apologise for providing a service?

    Later in the interview one of the sisters said:

    It’s easier for these women to blame the nuns than blame their mammy or their daddy.

    Indeed! It was so easy for two nuns – who did not want to reveal their identity – to talk in that negative manner and shift the blame. To think that the nuns were carrying on like that after the State apology just beggars belief. Some Magdalen laundry survivors never knew the meaning of a “mammy or a daddy.” It’s typical of the nuns to try to project the cruelty meted out by them on to others. The nuns tried the same caper at the commission to inquire into child institutional abuse. They accused the childrens’ families for the disturbed nature of the children, and tried to deny any wrongdoing on their part. They had to pick up the pieces where parents left off, and how humble and kind they were towards children. A whole load of baloney. Denial. Denial. Denial all round. Methinks there were top experts behind the scenes telling the nuns what to say. The religious – from the Vatican down – are infamous for their conniving media techniques.

    Magdalene survivors “shocked and upset” by nun interview defending laundries (via @thejournal_ie) http://jrnl.ie/825633

    I notice the way the media advertises adoptions; rescuing and fostering services of animal is not all that dissimilar to the way nuns advertised in the papers for empathetic people to take out Goldenbridge industrial school children. Children were lined up in the prison yard, and examined by would-be-host families. Damaged children never got a look in. Sadly some children were allegedly molested and raped by families who took them out at weekends; holidays or, who adopted them. I think animal carers are vetted much better than helpless children were in institutions.

  25. Acolyte of Sagan says

    Ophelia Benson
    March 25, 2013 at 3:54 pm
    Bjarte, there’s at least some evidence though that shows that empathy is a default setting. Studies at the Max Planck Inst. for example in which toddlers help strangers…..

    Coincidentally, I was walking in the snow recently with my grandson, who is a month shy of his third birthday. An elderly lady who was walking her dog slipped and fell just in front of us. Quick as a flash, my grandson ran over to her and said (all sic) “Is you awright? I help you get up. Is you ‘urted?.”
    The woman said that she was OK, that she’d hurt “nothing but my pride”, to which my little hero replied “You want I kiss you pride better?”

    Yup, I think there’s a strong case for a default empathy, just as there’s one for a default atheism. Where does it all go so wrong?

  26. Bruce Gorton says

    Ophelia Benson

    Yes, and thanks for introducing me to the concept. It is funny the things that really stick with you.

  27. Bjarte Foshaug says

    @Ophelia #25
    Yes, I have heard of that. Maybe I have just read too much Pinker 😛

  28. Dunc says

    Where does it all go so wrong?

    We live in a culture where the “normal” child-rearing practices constitute systematic child abuse, with the specific intention of instilling unquestioning obedience to authority. Alice Miller has many interesting and useful things to say on this subject.

  29. Dunc says

    A taster from Alice Miller: The Roots of Violence and NOT Unknown.

    1. The development of the human brain is use-dependent. The brain develops its structure in the first four years of life, depending on the experiences the environment offers the child. The brain of a child who has mostly loving experiences will develop differently from the brain of a child who has been treated cruelly.

    2. Almost all children on our planet are beaten in the first years of their lives. They learn from the start violence, and this lesson is wired into their developing brains. No child is ever born violent. Violence is NOT genetic, it exists because beaten children use, in their adult lives, the lesson that their brains have learned.

    3. As beaten children are not allowed to defend themselves, they must suppress their anger and rage against their parents who have humiliated them, killed their inborn empathy, and insulted their dignity. They will take out this rage later, as adults, on scapegoats, mostly on their own children. Deprived of empathy, some of them will direct their anger against themselves (in eating disorders, drug addiction, depression etc.), or against other adults (in wars, terrorism, delinquency etc.)

  30. michaelpowers says

    I think empathy, and the lack thereof, is really the main ideological difference between liberalism and conservatism. Romney’s infamous 47% remark is a good example. Imagine believing that one out of every two people you meet are lazy no-accounts who just want free stuff. YOUR stuff. It’s little wonder that they are attracted to Ayn Rand’s twisted vision of humanity. It’s the perfect rationalization for things like apathy, indifference, and greed.

    For myself, I believe that most people are decent, hard-working, and just trying to do the best they can. Am I ever wrong about this? Sometimes with a frequency that is downright absurd. But the alternative leads to a very dark place where people who consider themselves righteous are capable of gleefully committing horrible atrocities against others. I won’t be that guy.

  31. says

    I am increasingly convinced that Empathy must be grown actively.

    Consider the Russian orphans with sociopathic tendencies. Consider Romney’s 47% attitude. Consider the hoards that actually go out of their way to derail discussions on why using triggering language and really see themselves as just offering their opinion (which is a choice based on an impulse, no one does anything for no reason).

    People don’t go through life thinking they are “Bad Guys”, even the Hitlers and the Stalins. Empathy only exists when a concept is COGNITIVELY REAL. You care about the poor when you are exposed to their circumstances. You care about other tribes when you see that they are like you. You care about triggering language when you see the results of triggering language for yourself and your mirror neuron systems go to work. You feel it like it’s you. It’s why every man groans when they see someone kicked in a special place.

    So the only way to deal is to use the right approach that shoves as much reality at them in the shortest time possible. Learn to skim the scientific literature on the effects of visual harassment and audio harassment and let the horrible reality inform your rhetoric. Learn to direct attention to the parts of arguments that people actively avoid and target that subject with your best examples.

    You beat down resistance to empathy with reality-based attrition.

  32. says

    What were the people who screamed abuse outside Little Rock High School in 1957 thinking?

    OB: Have just watched a short (1997) video of the victims of Little Rock High School talking to Oprah. Some of the classmates who gave them a hard time have apologised for their terrible behaviour. One of the them put it down to pure ignorance. Another put it down to peer pressure, and another said it was intergenerational racism that caused her to be abusive.

    The Little Rock 9 on Oprah: http://youtu.be/75dhe5Zsy8k via @youtube


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