"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." - Charles Mackay
Thursday, March 30, 2006
Comfortably Numb
By Richard DeGrandpre

Did you feel for those Iraqis who were tied down and had attack dogs baying and chewing at them? Did seeing the pictures and hearing the stories make you sick? Or were you like most of us – engaged by the drama, entertained by the scandal, yet comfortably numb about the whole thing?

Many have replaced empathy with an “I”-centered sentimentality. Feeling has been turned on its head: caring is now a means not for taking action, but for feeling better about oneself or getting attention. We ride the emotional dramas in the tabloids, wear colored ribbons, and express our love for God and country. Meanwhile, we take no action – at least none driven by empathy.

Empathy is how we respond to the plight of fellow human beings. It is the bedrock of our moral sensibility that allows us to feel for others, to put ourselves in their place. If you cannot feel, how can you act outside your own wants and desires? To many today, it seems easier to just deny feelings of empathy, to react to them “rationally” as a weakness in this hard and fast world.But this has a cost. Losing feeling for others, or never developing the capacity to feel deeply at all, means closing off a fundamental part of being human. We feel less not just about the millions of innocent people killed by violence in the past decade, or the thousands of civilians killed in America’s wars for peace, but also about, say, our own partner, neighbors or parents. All feelings run along the same neural pathways.

Shutting down some means shutting down many. In the process, we become less human. As this happens, we not only stop feeling the pain of others, we become more capable of inflicting it. This is the darkest side of empathy’s erosion. If feelings underlie an empathic response, numbness makes brutality viable. Thus, as you happily switch off from humanity, you become a threat to it. We were comfortably numb about the torture at Abu Ghraib, and so were the GI guards who carried it out. Americans didn’t say sorry because they didn’t feel sorry. Simple as that.
And if we can’t feel for others, who will feel for us? Perhaps this is part of the general worsening of mental well-being. As a recent World Health Organization study shows, there’s a near-perfect correlation between the rise of alienation in the modern world and the decline of people’s mental states, with mental dysfunction growing globally. As empathy falls, behaviors predicated on its lack have been pathologized, like narcissistic and antisocial personalities. But these are not symptoms of organic disease. Instead, it is the social system that is in need of radical treatment.

Consider the example of antidepressant drugs like Paxil and Zoloft. It is now understood that these ssri antidepressants shut down peoples’ sexual emotions. What remains less appreciated is that they produce their mood-altering effect by essentially manufacturing apathy. Are these drugs popular, in part, precisely because they shut down our feelings? It is a frightening notion. Medicating our numbness is one thing, with a long and lonely history. But a culture medicating itself into comfortable numbness is something else. It is no longer the symptom but the cure.
posted by R J Noriega at 10:41 AM | Permalink |


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