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Thread: Empathy anyone?

  1. #1
    Jules Asner

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    Empathy anyone?

    I was talking to a European cousin of mine recently about the Iraq situation. She felt the US should mind its own business with regards to Iraq and that Bush was an idiot. That was her entire stance/argument. I asked her, aside from war, what does she think could be done to help the Iraqi people living under this regime without any basic human rights. I was shocked by her response.

    She said "They don't know any better so leave them alone". Her attitude was that since they lived without human rights for so long, they didn't know any better so it was OK to just let it go. I asked her if she had ever imagined what it would be like to live under such circumstances, especially considering she is a woman and is raising a daughter - could she imagine being a woman and raising a daughter in such a place and she responded "No, I haven't and I can't imagine it because I haven't lived in it." I repeated again, "You can't even try to imagine?" and she said, "No." I was shocked given that she was brought up in post-war Western Europe, but then I figured perhaps that was part of her problem and wondered if she was brought up in Eastern Europe would she still have this total lack of empathy. I took into consideration that she never reads, hates reading and is not ashamed to admit she's never read a book from cover to cover and has always used the Cliff Notes for school. Perhaps not reading about other people is why she can't even try to imagine what living in these societies would be like.

    Consider if her "They don't know any better, so let them be" attitude was used in other circumstances - slavery for instance - a third generation slave born on a plantation would know no other life and slavery was thought part of 'southern culture' - does that make it acceptable? Should we have left slavery alone because it was part of the culture? Slaves don't know any better so who cares? Of course not. By the by, right now she is living in the US, going to school, has a good job, children healthy and going to good school and is living quite a comfortable worry-free life, 'fat and happy' as they say, while she consistently rails on the US and talks about how horrible it is.

    I have no problem with someone being opposed to war, but to have no care for other human suffering and lack of basic human rights is unacceptable to me. I would offer her some literature to read, thinking that perhaps if she read some memoirs of people who have suffered in war or under maniacal dictatorships she might at least feel a tinge of pity for these people, in particular women with children in these societies, but I know she wouldn't read them, so why bother.

    Perhaps we could recommend some books to each other to further understanding of each other's struggles and cultures.

    Please list some recommendations, if you have any.

    Rgirl (the Lit queen) I would especially love any recommendations you have to offer. I can't promise to read them immediately but I will read them eventually ( I currently have a very long reading list and I will put them on the list)

    A Peace to End All Peace -- by David Fromkin -- history of the middle east

    The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956 -- by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn -- his memoir of life, and incarceration in soviet Russia.

    Stolen Lives by Malika Oufkir - a true-story of a family who "disappeared" (were imprisoned) in Morocco for years after their father was assassinated by the government.

    Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl -- I'm sure most of you heard of this one already and hopefully read it already. A real diary begun just before and during the span of her hiding with family during Nazi occupation of Holland in WWII.

    The Hiding Place -- by Corrie Ten Boom -- true story of Christian family who hid and helped Jews in Holland during Nazi occupation.

    Princess -- by Jean P. Sasson -- true account of Arabian princess living under Islamic extremist government.

    All But My Life -- by Gerda Weissman Klein - a true account of Polish family in WWII

    Night -- by Elie Wiesel - another memoir about life in concentration camp.

    and a few others:

    Angela's Ashes - by Frank McCourt -- a memoir about growing up in poverty. Set in Ireland.

    Stones From the River -- by Ursula Hegi -- this gives a non-nazi sympathetic German perspective from inside a German town in WWII.

    Broken April -- by Ismail Kadare -- very interesting book about old Albanian culture and the Kanun.

    Cry, the Beloved Country - by Alan Paton -- about South Africa and apartheid.

    Uncle Tom's Cabin - Harriet Beecher Stowe -- proof that writing books like this can make a difference -- this book helped bring about the end to slavery.

    To Kill a Mockingbird - by Harper Lee - an American classic regarding racism and justice.

    1984 and Animal Farm - George Orwell - most of you probably read both, if not I highly recommend.

    Now that you are sufficiently depressed... try reading A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson or A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole - that should cheer you up, I hope.

  2. #2

    0 Not allowed!

    Re: Empathy anyone?

    Jules, I find it odd that someone would feel this way about Human Rights (As most on this board know, I am staunchly opposed to the war). However, I would make a HUGE distinction between "Human rights" and "democracy". The former is something that all people have a right too (hmm, may be that's why it's called "Human rights"). The latter is a bit more complex. Let's take your slavery example for a minute. I would argue that before letting a former slave into Congress, it would be essential to give him ("hers" could not be elected at the time) a basic education (could we please give it to our modern politicians as well ???) in economics, foreign policy, etc. It is important to remember that Hitler was elected democratically (yah, yah, I know, with only 20% of the vote, but still it was not a coup or anything). This is a question I have been greatly struggling with lately. While I certainly believe that democracy is the ideal to strive for, how much exactly should it be checked at the early stages?

  3. #3
    Jules Asner

    0 Not allowed!

    Re: Empathy anyone?

    Yes, Hitler was nominated -- I think he would have been left alone had he not begun invading other countries. In fact, he was pretty much left alone after invading and occupying several. I guess they thought he would get tired of it after awhile but he didn't.

    I am not saying Iraq should be a democracy, or that every country should be democtratic, but people need to have basic human rights and women/different races equal rights to men. Slaves were not allowed to learn how to read (although some learned in secret) as now in many Islamic countries families are discouraged from educating women (some are taught in secret). Women's rights around the world, even in western countries are still lacking but at least they have some rights and can fight for other rights (like women fighting for the rights to vote, to own property etcetera, its a work in progress).

    What I just couldn't comprehend my cousin's lack of sympathy and empathy for people who don't have basic rights (and I should mention my cousin is actually a very generous, honest and nice person, which is why I was so shocked by her stance on this -- it just seemed so unlike her). Perhaps her hate for Bush is clouding her judgment, I really don't know.

  4. #4

    0 Not allowed!

    Re: Empathy anyone?

    Jules, it's a tough call. Everybody has sympathy for oppressed people. I bet your cousin does, too, way down deep.

    But sometimes great powers take it in their heads to liberate people who don't want to be liberated -- and we'll shoot anyone who says no. Think of all the the "people's liberation armies" that have used force of arms to impose their ideologies on unwilling people.


  5. #5

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    Re: Empathy anyone?

    Jules, if she "she never reads, hates reading and is not ashamed to admit she's never read a book from cover to cover", how can you expect she's going to read all those books? (great selection, btw). Maybe you should choose films then? There're lots of films about things like that. Two I can think of right now: Andrei Konchalovsky's <em><a href="" target="top">The Inner Circle</a></em> (Italy/USA 1991) and Ryszard Bugajski's <em><a href="" target="top">Interrogation</a></em> (Poland, 1982 - "shelved" for eight years). Both are very good (and very depressing). Btw, the links are to user comments at IMDb (The Internet Movie Datebase), if someone wants to know more about them.

    <blockquote><strong><em>Quote:</em></strong><hr>But sometimes great powers take it in their heads to liberate people who don't want to be liberated -- and we'll shoot anyone who says no. Think of all the the "people's liberation armies" that have used force of arms to impose their ideologies on unwilling people.[/quote] This is definitely something to consider. Sympathy for the oppressed is one thing, but who (and why, when, in what circumstances and on what conditions) has the right to be their "liberator" is another.

  6. #6

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    Re: Empathy anyone?

    Your list is better than mine would have been! (I love the subversive stuff...big surprise.) Seriously, you listed most of the best books I know of in terms of the general subject. I would only add anything by Primo Levi, ie, <em>Survival at Auschwitz, Moments of Reprieve</em> etc.

    But IMO, as frustrating as it is to try to communicate with people like this woman, nothing is ever going to change her mind except experience, ie, if she ever has to live under a totalitarian regime. As I'm sure is no news to anybody, many people cope by putting their heads in the sand. And if asked difficult questions, the way you did with this woman, they just plead, "I don't know and I don't care." It's like being a kid, putting your fingers in your ears, and saying, "I can't hear you! Bah-buh-la-buh-la-buh-la!" Even if she were forced to read every book and film on the subject with "Clockwork Orange" eyelid prongs, at the end of it all, she would say, "I didn't get any of it." She sounds to me like she's dug in. I have a couple of Mormon friends from when I lived in Utah and one of them still believes that if a gay man "really, really wants to" that he can become straight. The first time she mentioned this (it wasn't a surprise), I said, "I think it would be best if we never discuss that subject." She agreed, though she still says weird stuff and gets irrationally angry about homosexuality every so often. One of her best friends is a gay man and I think (I know) she still has hopes that he will "change" and marrry her. She went to a party at his apartment recently and called me up fuming that there were no single straight men there and why is it that all gay men only ever invite other gay men to their parties? I felt like saying "How many nonMormons get invited to Mormon parties--unless they're people considering converting?" Instead I said I'd been to lots of parties and get-togethers thrown by gay men where there were straight men and women, straight couples, families of all kind, lesbians, bisexuals--in short, the works. She got furious at that and accused me of just trying to prove her wrong. Well, yeah. Anyway, the point is, there's nothing you can say or do with some people on some subjects.

    I know what you mean, that it's not that you want her to agree with you or have a certain opinion on the war, but you just want her to think about it. In my experience, some people will do anything to avoid doing that. They just can't deal with it or they're just too threatened by how it makes them feel or whatever. There are some people, even if they are friends, with whom some subjects should just be avoided. Or else avoid her. Or else keep at it, I could be completely wrong!

  7. #7

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    Re: Empathy anyone?

    Reminds me of the time my little brother was about 3 and got into trouble for something and he shut his eyes and says "I got my eyes shut and you can't see me".

  8. #8
    Jules Asner

    0 Not allowed!

    Re: Empathy anyone?

    Thanks for all your suggestions and comments, as it was, during this conversation I had with my cousin, we just had to change the subject as there appeared to be no resolution and we didn't want to fight about it. I wouldn't ask her to read those books, because I know she doesn't like to read, but perhaps some documentary movies could get the point across - but for anyone who likes to read those are all great books. War isn't necessarily the answer and is probably the worst possibly answer but to do nothing is pretty bad and the UN seems to be completely useless so what can we do? I don't know and it makes me sick thinking about it - Thanks Rgirl for the Primo Levi book suggestions - I've heard of those but haven't read them yet but I am looking forward to doing so.

    During the US Civil War some of the things the Yankee generals did in the south were absolutely abominable. For instance, they purposely targeted civilian homes and property homes and basically burned down everything in their path. This ultimately helped the north to win and one of the results was slavery was abolished.. but does the end justify the means? it is a hard thing to think about.

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