Another month, another mindless mass shooting in the United States. They happen so regularly it seems that if you take a few days sabbatical from the news you’ll miss another one. Ten people dead here. Twenty dead there. Mass murders are cheap and easy in the land of the free access to the gun.
There’s two inevitable arguments we always hear when there’s a mass shooting:
- More guns would have stopped this from happening
- We’re grieving, this isn’t the time to talk about it.
I seriously don’t know any more which argument is more morally repellent, but if I had to make a call it’d likely be the latter, not the former these days.
The USA’s gun crime rate is an abhorrent example of what happens when a sufficiently large enough collection of people within a society just don’t give a damn about other people. Australia had that moment in the 90s. Sure, we didn’t have some stupid second amendment about a right to own guns, but we had a reasonably robust gun culture. The 90s though taught us that if you let angry idiots have powerful weapons, innocent bystanders get hurt. Sadly, that’s seemingly all it taught us. We can ‘tut-tut’ for all we want about how the United States gun crime statistics are off the charts and totally at odds with what should happen in a supposedly caring society, but there’s a more than vaguely unsettling edge of hypocrisy in that. You see, we can question the ethics of a society that doesn’t care enough about total strangers when angry idiots have access to guns, but we let angry idiots with no empathy wield political power all the time in Australia.
While we lock empathy out in the cold winter of selfish focus on ourselves and our loved ones, we lose our humanity … no, actually, lose is the wrong word. We abdicate our humanity in return for some worthless, pointless, meaningless and fraudulent feeling of safety.
Yet there is no safety in fear. Nor is there safety in hate. Nor is there safety in selfishness.
Or anger. Or greed.
Abjuring empathy for any of those reasons is not just morally bankrupt, it’s damning in the extreme to the psyche of our societies. Turning our backs for instance on homelessness and making the victims to blame is so much a part of society now that it’s painful to argue against it. Painful because you see so many people who should give a damn failing to. The arguments come thick and fast and are as soulless as you can imagine. “Probably doesn’t want a job”, or “Could get out of it if they tried”, and “All homeless people are addicted to something”.
Society is addicted to fear. Which one is worse?
Too many people ignore climate change because it’s personally, economically convenient to them. Ask yourself: do you think those people who deny the science and the repercussions of it do so because it’s really the case that 97% or more of those in the environmental science community are in on a vast conspiracy … or are the deniers the real shills who have been bought by greed? What kind of a world do they condemn their children (and your children) to? Maybe they don’t even care about their own children and grandchildren – that would almost be a better explanation. But it’s feasible to believe they do, and it’s more likely they seriously think the blood money they accumulate convincing the general public to reject change out of a fear of higher power bills or ‘ugly’ renewable energy sources will protect their kids – and your kids be damned. After all, they’re just the offspring of dumb poor people anyway. They don’t matter. Or maybe the ‘nicest’ excuse is they’re just so damn greedy for money and frightened of losing power if they offend the lobby groups that they’re only thinking of the short term benefits to them of spruiking the bullshit.
And asylum seekers … how can we care so little about people who have nothing but desperation? When Oscar Wilde was asked what he was bringing into the United States on a visit, he supposedly answered “I have nothing to declare but my intellect.” If only that’s what asylum seekers were declaring. If asked the same question they fear for their lives, they fear for the lives of their families, and they fear for the consequences if they’re forced to return to where they came from. So in return our country turns them back at sea and we look askance, hoping not to see the boats. Those that aren’t turned away at sea are dumped in hell-holes for years or more where they might be beaten to death, or raped and mentally tortured. When the horror stories come out, we collectively nod our heads and allow our political leaders to shoot the messengers and to castigate those who dare to be human enough to say “This isn’t right.”
Individually some of us may care, but this isn’t about individual caring, it’s about what we do collectively. Collectively we don’t care about the poor, the lost, the at risk or even the planet, and so we’re all tarred with that brush, whether we want to be or not.
It’s all too easy to give into fear – but it’s dehumanising to fall into apathy, the true emotional opposite of empathy. As love is the opposite to hate or anger, apathy is the opposite of empathy. It’s apathy that allows us to walk past a homeless person without helping. It’s apathy that allows us to turn off the news talking about asylum seekers being forced into group sex with guards or having their heads caved in by ravening mobs because “the news is too depressing”. It’s apathy that makes us believe we just have to learn to live with climate change and can’t do anything about it unless everyone else does at the same time or we’ll be at an unfair economic advantage. And it’s apathy that makes people say “don’t talk about gun control now – we’re grieving.”
And all the while our societies remain condemned for the egregious crime of simply not giving a damn.