Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Power of Empathy, Politics and Palestine


Lissa Johnson is a clinical psychologist with an interest in the psychology of ideology and politics, and the philosophy and politics of psychology. Occasionally she writes for New Matilda.

Her most recent piece was about empathy and in particular why we appear to display more of it for animals used in the recently exposed greyhound baiting scandal than for  a young aboriginal woman who died last year after falling ill while in police custody  for a petty reason.

An introduction and link to the article follows but towards the end of the piece is this odd observation that demanded a comment on the power of propaganda and its impact on people like Lissa Johnson.. 

In experiments, for instance, people give images of suffering children a wider berth than images of healthy children. Our Government’s secrecy around immigration detention has sought to capitalise on this very tendency, rendering our avoidance of suffering children routine.
Little wonder that Gillian Triggs has been pilloried for making those children the targets of empathy instead.
The Forgotten Children report must be particularly distressing to our Government given that empathy is the emotional wellspring of altruism and altruistic acts.
Empathy produces helping behaviour of all kinds, and intergroup empathy and its correlates predict degrees of support for, or opposition to, various social policies, including redistributive social policies, humanitarian aid to Palestinians, military aggression against Palestinians, torture of Iraqis including water torture, beatings, stress positions and humiliating acts, and torture of Muslims in general.

So if you are an opponent of Hamas and other terrorist gangs that milk and oppress Palestinian people or of if you have sympathy for its targets and victims forced into self defence then this is because you are a person without empathy. If you support the regimes that carry out these terrible acts then that is because you are basically an altruistic person who has evolved differently to the cavemen. Killers and altruists are both the work of natural selection and the inference is that we have a choice to evolve towards the better angels of our nature.

Interesting. This exposes  a problem with the whole concept of psychology in politics right there for a start. 

The psychology of politics depends entirely on the politics of the psychologist.  

This blog's comment.

Posted Friday, March 6, 2015 - 01:25

Thank you Barney*, I was just about to make that point. The power of images and the message ( the mainstays of political propaganda) is overlooked entirely in this article. The animal cruelty was fresh and raw and in your face. It had shock value. 
It also overlooks the power of emotionally induced disdain or even hatred (such as racism). 
Lissa Johnson has unwittingly provided a classic example. She demonstrates that she has "empathy" for "Palestinians" but none at all for Israelis.  "Palestinians" subject to "military aggression" (which simply does not happen) and kept in permanent "refugee" status by corrupt "humanitarian aid", often channelled to terrorists,  she interprets as absence of empathy for the people.  
On the other hand, the building of dozens of  terrorist attack  tunnels (with cement supplied as "humanitarian aid")  , the launching of thousands of missiles at civilians,  and the kidnapping and murder of children invoke not the slightest suggestion of empathy for the victims at all and it could only be because they are Israeli Jews.
This is the common, default position of the fashionable left. It is impossible not to conclude that this emotional and irrational reaction is primarily the result of years of anti-Israel propaganda in main stream media and especially the skilled exploitation of shocking TV images.
This is endemic but perhaps the most infamous illustrations are the Netzarim Junction blood libel, (aka the Al Dura Affair) and the dead baby strategy. 
A straight forward case of induced emotion trumping reason.  

 *But the story about empathy for the animal victims of greyhounds, is about the fact that we watched it and heard it on TV. If Julieka's last hours had been televised there would have been a great outcry. But it was just another brief news story about someone we didn't know who lived a long way from us. We were able to put it aside and get on with our own lives.
Lissa Johnson responded (below) but then the exchange took another odd turn when another commenter entered. 

Swami has identified as an Australian born Muslim but not of a mainstream denomination. The exchanges with him or her and with Lissa Johnson show just how deeply the anti-Israel narrative has burrowed into the bones. That there can be no empathy with Israeli Jews is taken as a given. It does not receive a moment's thought. That they have no feeling for the Arab victim of an appalling crime is also assumed. That they are capable of any crime and collectively responsible for every crime is also taken for granted. This is a reflex that takes no thought. 

The article. 

4 Mar 2015

Dying Like An Animal: The Price Of Empathy And How Governments Use Yours Against You

By Lissa Johnson

Want to know why some people are more moved by greyhound baiting, than by an Aboriginal death in custody? Why the Abbott Government restricts media access to images of kids in detention? Why Gillian Triggs has been targeted? Why we’re so easily collectively exploited on issues like terrorism and war? It’s all about the empathy and how governments target yours, writes Dr Lissa Johnson.
It was difficult to stomach the reports of animal cruelty in the greyhound racing industry last month.
So alarming was the Four Corners coverage of injured rabbits and possums, dying slowly as they screamed in terror and pain, that it made front page news the next day.
And rightly so. No living creature in human care should die like that.
Which gives pause for thought.
I wonder if  Julieka Dhu, a Yamitji woman arrested for unpaid parking fines in Port Hedland last year, experienced something similar as she lay dying in her jail cell.
One can only imagine the anguish, horror and helplessness of a slow painful death before others’ eyes while pleading repeatedly for help. What Julieka’s family must feel knowing that she died like that is beyond harrowing to contemplate.
For some reason, however, Julieka’s suffering has elicited less of our collective outrage and concern than the suffering of the animals in the Four Corners report.
Far less.
Continues here.
First Lissa Johnson's response (which concedes the power of the "main stream media" but not apparently other media. Whether she would include the Arab language internet hate sites and antisemitic propaganda  mills of Hamas and the PA we just don't know. Likely she has not heard of them )

Lissa J
Posted Saturday, March 7, 2015 - 10:10

I agree with the points that people have made about the role of the mainstream media and its magnitude. Thank you for emphasising this. I think that the MSM and government interact with - capitalising on and magnifying - the human tendencies described here.  The degree to which this takes place is likely to vary from person to person and context to context, a whole other topic in itself.
On the subject of evolutionary origins, intergroup processes are just one quality thought to have an evolutionary basis, along with others such as physical violence and sexual exploitation, as well as pro-social, co-operative, selfless traits, as people have rightly pointed out.
In creating and conducting contemporary societies we decide which of these impulses we value, which serve us and our collective good, and which interfere. I am arguing that as intergroup processes have consequences such as death and human rights violations on the receiving end, they warrant serious consideration.
One implication of acknowledging the evolutionary roots of intergroup phenomena, which I hope came across, is that intergroup processes do not necessarily reflect overtly prejudiced or racist attitudes.  They can also reflect largely unconscious processes with a kind of prehistoric power. The aim of becoming collectively aware of them is to help us as societies to rise above them, even in the face of MSM manipulation, if that is what we wish to do.
Now the exchange with swarmi

Posted Friday, March 6, 2015 - 10:19

@ Geoff
Out of curiosity, whatever happened to those Israeli youths who, just before the last Israeli invasion  of Gaza, burnt a young Palestinian to death? Part of their method was to pour petrol down his throat. Do you know what their punishment for this hate/race crime was? And do you empathise with those Israeli youths?
But you are correct about how empathy is hostage to our political system. Maybe we will do well to see and understand our social context if we really want to answer what makes us tick. And if you want to believe that the only problem in this world is the Palestian and those who support their cause then maybe your empathy is a little compromised by the exclusive world your mind wanders around.

Posted Saturday, March 7, 2015 - 00:26

Out of curiosity, whatever happened to those Israeli youths who, just before the last Israeli invasion of Gaza, burnt a young Palestinian to death? Part of their method was to pour petrol down his throat. Do you know what their punishment for this hate/race crime was? And do you empathise with those Israeli youths?
With respect Swarmi, are you serious about these questions, especially the last one? 
The killers were quickly hunted down, charged with kidnapping and murder, and arraigned. The ring leader (the only "adult") has confessed and re-enacted the crime for the police. All of them were charged as terrorists. It hasn't come to a full trial yet but there is speculation that at least one will attempt a defence of insanity and two  minors will plead guilty to the kidnapping but not the murder.
They are all in custody and no matter what happens at the trial that is where they will stay. 
Of course I have no empathy at all for these killers. Nor do any Israelis who were shocked by the crime. Until the arrests many had difficulty accepting that these thugs could be Jews. Not just Israelis. The shock has been cathartic. The national soul searching as evidenced in the Israeli media has been profound.
All of my empathy was and is for the poor boy and his family. All of it. That poor harmless kid.  I know for certain Israelis at every level feel the same. 
Among some other things, I wrote at the time about the crime and its portrayal,  moral equivalence and the so called cycle of violence here.   

Posted Sunday, March 8, 2015 - 00:01

@ Geofff
I accept your disclaimer. But why are you so surprised I asked? Do you think all Jews are some indivisible whole? Do you speak for all Jews? I would be offended if I was labelled a racist simply on the basis I was born in Australia and this is an obviously racist country. And the majority of us who live here are not racists either.
But, when an incident like the race/hate crime committed by some Jewish individuals occurs, it must raise some alarm bells about the society from which it came. The KKK was an extremists group in the US that most Americans despise yet they did come out of American society and its sordid history of slavery.
So if you have empathy for the murdered Palestinian youth do you allow yourself the luxury of questioning the society from which this crime emerged?

Posted Sunday, March 8, 2015 - 01:24

So if you have empathy for the murdered Palestinian youth do you allow yourself the luxury of questioning the society from which this crime emerged?
I don't regard it as a luxury but as an Australian I don't feel particularly qualified. As you would expect, there was an avalanche of questioning, commentary, analysis and debate from people who, being Israeli, are enormously better qualified. Frankly there is already more than enough "questioning" from a distance of this society from the profoundly ignorant, not to mention malicious, just waiting for an opportunity.
This was a terrible crime. Just as terrible have been  committed in Australia. In fact regrettably they are more common here. These horrible crimes happen everywhere in the world. Rarely do they incite the kind of self examination of the "society"  that this did in Israel. 
Frankly I think they overdid it. It was almost stereo typical Jewish self flagellation and guilt.  Innocent people taking on the burden of the guilty. Nothing to do with an unhealthy society at all. On the contrary. 
However since we are talking about questioning societies for violent criminality let us at least be honest. Before this crime, three hitch-hiking Jewish kids were picked up by a couple of Hamas thugs at gun point. One of the kids managed to ring the emergency number. The Israeli police have a recording of the killers whooping with delight as they butchered their victims one by one. 
In Israel, the crime by Jews provoked universal revulsion and a swift legal response.
In the territories, Gaza and parts of Jerusalem the murder of the three Jewish boys provoked celebrations in the streets and general gloating. The PA press published a cartoon depicting  three baited rats hanging from hooks on a stick.
I have no doubt at all which society is the healthier. Do you?
Is that the kind of questioning you mean?
And that was the end of the conversation. Progress? I doubt it. Dr Johnson offers a diagnosis of a very real and dangerous societal illness but does not appear to realise that she has a chronic form of the condition. 
Cross posted Geoffff's Joint


  1. Undoubtedly, 'swarmi' has already gotten past your inconvenient facts, and refreshed the anti-Israel browser of his 'mind.'

    Have the online representatives of the oh-so-empathetic, superior human beings on the other side ever reacted like this to horrific crimes and terror attacks?

    1. Thanks for that Jay. The link proves the point.

  2. It is an article of faith with the progressive left that they, and they alone, have "empathy".
    It is how they like/ need to see themselves. You can self- identify as " empathetic" merely by joining their club. They exist in a bubble of their own, assumed, self-righteousness. They do not arrive at their beliefs by serious intellectual inquiry or by being informed of complex historical facts. They have no capacity for intellectual rigor. They have no capacity for examining their own intellectual and emotional dishonesty.
    While they label themselves as "empathetic", here are some people they demonstrate they have no empathy for:
    Anyone who is not a progressive.
    All Israelis, including children.
    All people who serve in western military.
    All people who serve in western police forces.
    Anyone who disagrees with them.
    Anyone who is a conservative.
    Tony Abbott.
    Anyone in Tony Abbott's government.
    Anyone who chose to vote for Tony Abbott.
    Anyone who writes in the conservative press.
    All Muslims in countries where they are oppressed by Islamist ideology.
    All Muslims who would prefer western progressives to help them be free of Islamist ideology and its effects on their lives.
    All muslim women who live in countries where they are not allowed to be free.
    All gay people in muslim countries where they are persecuted ( Including people in Gaza).
    All people who try and draw attention to the hypocrisy of the western progressive left.

    There is a world of difference between their identifying themselves as "empathetic", and what they actually are.

    1. Interesting list, k.

      One related question to ask is, what are the acceptable boundaries of contempt?

      Who, from a political standpoint, is it A-OK to hate on as progressives or as conservatives?

      While pro-Israel Jews make the progressive list of acceptable people to hate, Jihadis often don't.

    2. That is an interesting question.

      Ask some of them about Allen West, for example, and you'll see that some can harbor as much just-under-the-surface racist contempt towards African-Americans as they do towards Jews.

      Hell, even the ones who don't view President Obama as 'progressive' enough for them qualify on this count, as well. I never got much into it myself while at Daily Kos, but plenty of conflict existed between African-American posters and the self-styled Super Progressives, to the point where the latter absolutely let their masks slip more than a little bit.

      Ayaan Hirsi-Ali is clearly somebody they can, and do, freely hate. Maajid Nawaz also probably qualifies, especially now that he's palling around with Sam Harris.

      (Btw, it's Sam Harris in your Elder piece - not Michael Harris.)

      I think they're pretty much equal opportunity in their bigotry and hatred towards anybody who qualifies in any way as Western, and who doesn't see the world exactly as they do.

    3. Though I would note that their hatred toward Jews is especially open and ugly, likely due to their feeling that they can completely take the filter off, as a result of their 'brown people (who think like us, or at least don't disagree with us) vs. not-brown people' way of viewing of the world, in which Jews as a collective are likely, and of course wrongly, seen as "just a bunch of random white folks."

    4. "what are the acceptable boundaries of contempt?"

      It is an interesting question.

      I would start by saying progressives make an issue of describing themselves as "empathetic" This is not actually necessary. It has become a way of morally signalling to others that they are to be assumed to be 'good' people. Equally, the progressive left have spent much time and energy in painting anyone who is 'on the other side' as being 'bad'. Not 'wrong' in terms of having different views, but 'bad'. They have insisted that people who hold different beliefs about politics and culture are by definition terrible people. Terrible people who are uncaring, stupid, racist, misogynistic, homophobic etc. They have been enormously successful in this. They have won the culture war.
      This has allowed them to bathe in a kind of moral narcissism. Most of the time they do not even bother to have a debate. They do not believe there is a debate. Just that they are right. And, therefore, that anyone who thinks a little outside the groupthink is wrong. It is one thing to believe other people are wrong, it is another to believe that anyone who disagrees with you should be denounced. They denounce people constantly. They abhor the McCarthy period, yet have become the chief denouncers of our times.
      It can be reasonable to have contempt for people's views or the ideology they profess to believe in. However, it is not necessary to actually have contempt for them as people. Very few people behave in such terrible ways that that should be ok. Even if you vehemently disagree with people, you can still see them as human beings, who hold a different view. Sometimes, only sometimes, people have views which are so appalling that it is impossible to do anything but oppose them. ISIS fall into that category. I loathe pretty much everything that Obama is and does. But if he fell over in front of me, I would help him up. If he had a good idea, I would acknowledge it as such. My observation of the political landscape in the US is that most liberals would not help up George Bush Jr. if he fell over in front of them. And that nothing he said or did could ever be acknowledged to be right. Even if it was.( I personally do not admire George Bush. ) They have become used to dehumanising their ideological opposition. It is their complete ease with this dehumanising that has become so alarming. And so intellectually narrowing. Yes, of course they denounce Allen West, Aayan Hirsi- Ali and Maajid Nawaz etc as it is so much easier than listening to them. So much easier than having a debate. Than wondering whether one might have something to learn. A black conservative - he must be an Oreo. Subject closed.
      They ( the empathetic, morally superior people) have shut down and smeared anyone and everyone who doesn't conform to their set of narrow ideas. They spew out hate and bile constantly. They are not the only people who hate, but they have turned it into a way of life and an art form.
      It is interesting that those who promote themselves as 'good', 'caring', humanitarian ',' empathetic ' etc, should be the people who are most comfortable with dehumanising their fellow members of the human race.

    5. ( please excuse the punctuation marks that went astray there)

  3. "Frankly I think they overdid it. It was almost stereo typical Jewish self flagellation and guilt."

    The Jewish people may be the most self-reflective people on the face of the Earth.

    This Jewish tendency toward self-examination - the very tendency that gave us the field of psychology to begin with - is a virtue, but all virtues have their attendant vices.

    The sibling vice that goes along with the virtue of self-reflection is sloth.

    Self-reflection can easily morph into navel-gazing and navel-gazing hobbles the ability to act, the ability to defend oneself, and the ability to criticize others.

    So, yes, Jewish self-reflection can become self-indulgent and sickening in its self-flagellation.

  4. I feel like I'm on Pee Wee's Playhouse. Today's Secret Word is 'empathy.'

    Gideon Levy urges Israeli Jews to show same in a rather 'interesting' way.

    1. Gideon Levy is a perfect example of someone who uses the idea of "empathy" for moral posturing. He is advocating something that is actually devoid of empathy for Israeli Jews. He urges Israeli Jews to be - as is usual with the Haaretz crowd - some sort of fantasy moral giants. People who should vote against their own interests because it will make them seem a certain way. It is the self- regarding idealism of fools. Masquerading as ' goodness' - to be greeted with applause from his wide international audience. Never mind the actual outcomes. This has nothing to do with empathy. Everything to do with a belief that he is a good person for blaming his own kind for everything. And for believing that his own kind, Israeli Jews, should not be protected from real harm.
      People who constantly speak ill of their own and do not care if their own kind come to harm are usually desperately unpleasant, and dangerous. And spend their time morally preening so as to set themselves apart as the ' enlightened ' ones.

      Most claims of empathy in the political arena are fairly meaningless. To try and solve problems or work out practical solutions to difficult situations requires many things. Including being able to be clear- minded and, if necessary, tough. I would favour someone who was more likely to achieve a workable outcome, over someone who is so keen to display their moral credentials that they would create a worse situation. Gideon Levy a 'peacock'. And a fairly despicable one.

    2. Should have read ' Gideon Levy *is* a " peacock".'