Guest post by Michael Šimková, originally a comment on the Facebook autopost of the Torturing animals, for instance, was just good clean fun post; published with permission.
Very interesting discussion. I am not sure what to think about it myself. It does worry me a lot. I believe we won’t survive if we don’t change ourselves to be non-violent, and probably this will require some genetic tinkering. Even if we could survive it is not very pleasant to live in this world of… er… angry chimps.
When I was younger I think in some sense I was more empathic than now, or applied it more universally. I fought my cousin because she cut up live earthworms to see if they would regrow. When there was a mouse in the house my gran boiled up a pot of water to throw on it to kill it, and when I realised what she intended to do I literally flung myself between the mouse and her to stop it. She very nearly threw the water on me. I screamed at a group of four older boys who otherwise intimidated me for thoughtlessly stepping on a caterpillar, even somehow made them carry it around in an attempt at performing ‘intensive care’.
As I got older I think I’ve progressively become desensitised, less inclusive. I’ll smush insects. I do still get the funny feeling, “I’ve ended this little thing’s experiences.” But I do it anyway. I would still try to stop anyone burning a mouse to death, but I doubt I’d fling myself into the path of oncoming boiling water like when I was 6. I certainly wouldn’t start a fight over an earthworm, though I still hate the thought of cutting one up. And of course I have to relativise. “That’s gruesome, but so many random experiences of this world are.” I didn’t relativise as a child because I didn’t know enough.
I’ve noticed at work with my colleagues we play a sort of self-mocking coy game if there is pesky bug around. Who will be the beast who smushes it, and who will feign the moral high ground? You mention revulsion as a factor in stopping violence, but I think it is also precisely our revulsion that often fuels it. It is considered normal to feel revulsion at insects, even those whose presence is benign. It is not considered normal now to feel revulsion at a dog – though some people do anyway. And batterers report feelings of revulsion toward the people they batter. The coy game with the bug is that whoever is overcome first by her revulsion is the ‘beast’ who eliminates the pest for us and we pretend to have nothing to do with such a thing, but are actually relieved and obviously enabling it. The revulsion is the trigger.
I also remember that when I was young, if I got angry or felt put upon, I was much more volatile, and more liable to forego empathy. I could throw myself in front of boiling water to protect a mouse, but if the mouse bit me I might be angry enough to want to hurt it back. As I’ve gotten older I’ve repressed or rationalised that desire away for anything but the worst atrocities. You know, the thing bit me, but it doesn’t even know any better, it’s just anxious, makes no sense to be angry at it. So and so hurt me but it would just bring more suffering to retaliate, better to find a way out of the situation. Things like that, I am much better older. I suppose that is what Janet L. Factor calls the influence of civilisation. Yet instinctive empathising with an earthworm, I was better at younger.
I’ve met people who put mice in microwaves for fun and they joke about it, and laugh about it. It’s funny to them. The suffering of the mouse and my own horror at their telling of it seemed equally amusing to them. That does make me desire to hurt them back, ironically, deep down. Again the feeling is revulsion.
I’ve no doubt a large part of it is learned. My grandmother for example was raised in a culture in which it simply was taken for granted that animals have no feelings. I think she saw them as philosophical zombies. They moved, seemingly with purpose, but were empty inside to her. She believed I was crazy for attributing complex emotions to the dog, while I believed she was blind for not perceiving them. I wonder though if the ability to empathise is a separate thing from sadism, and if revulsion doesn’t play a role in wanting to cause harm rather than wanting to avoid it.
These are just meandering thoughts. I really don’t have a clear picture of any of it.