Pretend you are a murderer. I am assuming that most of you are not, and I would go as far as assuming that most of you would even have difficulty pretending you are. This is because as a common person, you find it extremely difficult to understand why someone would kill another person. Now imagine you are someone who is struggling to survive so you shoplift a store to put food on the table for your family. While this is also wrong, you can probably understand why someone would do this even though it is inherently wrong. So why can you put yourself in one situation but not the other? Such a phenomenon is presented in my three following blog posts about a person’s ability to empathize with someone who has done a misdeed. To answer this question, I would like to rephrase my question in a way that hopefully helps you to understand more about empathy after reading the three blog posts.
To what extent does a situational difference between an audience and a person that we hope to empathize with hinder an audience’s ability to empathize with this wrongdoer? In simple terms, according to Christian Happ’s Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, empathy will make people act more favorable towards good people and less favorably towards bad people. In these following three posts, I will define, as clearly as I can, my own answer to this question. I will first oppose the opinion of an author who claims that while people cannot fully empathize with those who commit atrocious acts, they can at least in part understand the motives behind these acts that have essentially no relevance to their lives. I will then give an example of this phenomenon with a man who commits a heinous act and explain why it is so difficult to empathize with this person. Finally, I will give a counterargument to this thesis with a famous book character that seemingly takes a turn for the worse from one book to another. This will help show that there is in fact a barrier that we as an audience can pass through and empathize with a person. In order to understand more about these following blog posts, I will now introduce them a little bit more thoroughly.
My first post examines the way that Adam Morton’s Empathy for the Devil explains the extent to which people can empathize with those who commit atrocious acts. Morton ultimately argues that despite a false sense of empathy that people may try to feel for a person who commits these acts, it is extremely difficult to find similarities with this person and therefore, empathize with such a person. While I argue that Morton’s argument is largely correct, I do not believe that people can even go as far as pretend that they can empathize with someone who commit more sinister offenses.
Such a case in seen in my second post about a man named Zach Davis who was fired from a job for a Twitter post that dehumanized the black people in Baltimore, comparing them to the apes in The Planet of the Apes. While the man was simply expressing his opinion about a social issue, this act of racism is unforgivable for many people. This is seen in the person that fired Davis from his job as a sheriff. Unless you are a person who has made this kind of mistake, it is tough to empathize with this man whose life was severely changed for the worse. Much of the conflict in being able to identify with Davis is that there are few people who feel the same way that he does. In contrast, a case where there is less difference between personal experience and a wrongdoer makes it significantly easier to empathize with this person.
My final post takes the opposing viewpoint of the previous two, examining Atticus Finch’s character in Go Set a Watchman. Atticus Finch is a man known for his role as the man who attempted to change everyone’s mind about racism in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. In Harper Lee’s ‘sequel’, Go Set a Watchman, Atticus’s character changes significantly, at least on the surface, and many To Kill a Mockingbird fans are deeply saddened by the racist qualities he exhibits. I argue that because Atticus is in an environment where people are racist, he seems to exhibit the qualities of the mob. However, with further examination into his character in Go Set a Watchman, he does not share the same opinion that others in the novel do about black people. If people can understand that Atticus Finch is at worst acting in the way the people around him are acting, they can understand his situation and empathize with him rather than bashing his seemingly horrid transformation.
Christian Happ’s Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking puts empathy in terms of how people are generally able to empathize with the protagonist in the game and are more likely to be violent towards the villain. The user could choose which character he or she wanted to play as, so when the user chose the protagonist, s/he was willing to beat up on the villain. However, when the user chose the antagonist, it was harder for them to want to beat the protagonist. This analogy helps us envision why in the context of my three blog posts, why we are able to empathize with some people and not with others. I am not saying that people such as Zach Davis are villains, but people oftentimes associate the atrocious acts they commit with villains rather than hero, so it is much more difficult to empathize with them. I hope my three blog posts will help you form your own opinion about how when people can generally empathize with others and when they find it more challenging.
Happ, Christian, André Melzer, and Georges Steffgen. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. October 2013, 16(10): 774-778.