Just a few weeks ago, I read the provocatively-titled ‘Against Empathy’ by neuroscientist Paul Bloom. The book posits that empathising with others often leads to moral folly. Empathy, Bloom argues, is like a spotlight. It has a narrow focus. Everything caught in its beam is exaggerated; everything outside it is diminished.
The theory struck me as self-evident, for reasons that the internet illustrated yesterday, by foisting upon me some rather disturbing footage. It depicted a modern-day Biff Tannen pursuing some hapless Syrian refugee child across a field. The bully pinned his victim to the ground and, Guantanamo-style, poured bottled water into his mouth. I won’t share the footage, nor the names of those involved, but you don’t have to look very hard to find either.
Now, for as long as anyone cares to remember, children have been behaving dreadfully toward one another. But it’s only recently that they’ve acquired a means of sharing their barbarous exploits for the world to see. I, like most viewers, found the episode disturbing (and not-altogether unfamiliar). I felt sympathy for the victim, anger at the onlookers, and a desire to intervene by smothering the attacker’s eyes in strawberry jam and dropping a nest of angry wasps onto his head.
This video went mega-viral. Condemnation of the bully was universal, as was empathy with the stricken victim. Like the burning of the Grenfell effigy a few weeks earlier, this provided the prophets of Twitter with a chance to pontificate.
Big-name celebrities and journalists from across the political spectrum chipped in. Andrew Neil tweeted that the episode ‘shames the country’. Jeremy Vine invited his followers to give enough to the JustGiving fund to put the kid through university, open up a big company, and employ his bully to look after the car park.
I can see why this sort of convoluted revenge fantasy might appeal. Inarguably, it has a certain poetry to it. But I doubt that Vine has quite thought through that this might be possibly the most grotesque misallocation of resources imaginable.
And it’s this thought that brought to mind Bloom’s book. The problem with this empathic outpouring is that children whose beatings aren’t televised don’t have access to this level of public support. This is hardly the first video of a bullying incident to be published onto the internet. I saw another one just a few weeks ago, in which one kid punches another in the face. There was some minor online blustering, but not what you’d call a twitterstorm.
Of course, this more recent video is different. The level of violence on display, for a starters. Then there’s the racial dimension, for the victim is a brown-skinned immigrant and the bully in question is the epitome of knuckle-dragging white racism. And there’s the fact that this particular victim has had to flee a warzone only to be tormented by some tosser in Huddersfield.
Thus, this footage can form part of a narrative. It can confirm what you’ve always known about the Daily Mail, Nigel Farage, and Boris Johnson. And it’s proof, if proof is what you’re after, that without the civilising influence of Brussels, the British will surely revert to their natural savagery. There’s something about the way this all gets self-servingly spun into a political yarn that I really find quite revolting, but that’s the modern internet.
But at the same time, you can’t blame activists for trying to play with our empathy. Presented with a series of line graphs and tables demonstrating that the rainforests are indeed shrinking, most people will shrug. But a short animated film about an orangutan can spur millions to give up palm oil. All the correspondence I receive from charities reflects this: I don’t get homelessness statistics, but rather the personal story of a chap named Clive who’s been forced to sleep in his car for months on end.
If you want an idea of the specifics of the case, you can read them here. Pretty sobering reading. Now, however ardent our sympathy toward the victim(s), you’d be hard pressed to say that this is the most ethically sound way to spend £130,000. There is an opportunity cost to doing this, because every penny flung in his direction will be one that’s denied to some other worthy cause – namely providing less glamorous support for less photogenic suffering.