According to the International Association of Genocide Scholars, in the twentieth century more people have died from genocide and mass murder than from all wars.1 After each atrocity, men and women in the international community cry “Never again,” but human rights abuses against innocent children, women, and men continue. In his job as a reporter for the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof has been able to see these human rights abuses firsthand, winning a Pulitzer Prize for bringing attention to the genocide in Darfur. Yet despite the attention Kristof and others have drawn to this humanitarian disaster, the violence continues. Why is this the case?
Looking to history can help us address this question. In the 1940s, Jan Karski, a courier for the Polish resistance, publicized reports about Nazi atrocities to a mostly unbelieving audience. After the war, he spoke of his attempts to alert people to the mass murder of European Jews, explaining, “The tragedy was that these testimonies were not believed. Not because of ill will, but simply because the facts were beyond human imagination.”2During the Holocaust, many people did not intervene to stop the genocide because they were not able to “imagine the unimaginable.” As Professor Larry Langer argues, “Even with the evidence before our eyes, we hesitate to accept the worst.”*
In his editorial “Save the Darfur Puppy,” Kristof provides another reason why many people do not respond when confronted with information about genocide or humanitarian disasters. Drawing on the work of Paul Slovic, a professor who studies the psychology of compassion, Kristof explains that “the human conscience just isn’t pricked by mass suffering, while an individual child (or puppy) in distress causes our hearts to flutter.”3He refers to studies that demonstrate how people are more likely to help one person, or even one animal, than they are to help hundreds of suffering people. This investigation includes that editorial as well as an excerpt from the abstract** of Slovic’s study on psychic numbing and genocide.
Both of these readings help us think about a concept called “psychic numbing.” Psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton*** (Click here for Bill Moyers 2002 interview with Lifton) coined this term to refer to “a general category of diminished capacity or inclination to feel.”4Writing about the “numbing of everyday life,” he explains, “We are bombarded by all kinds of images and influences and we have to fend some of them off if we’re to take in any of them, or to carry through just our ordinary day’s work. . . .”5In her book High Tide in Tucson, novelist Barbara Kingsolver affirms Lifton’s observation that people numb themselves to disturbing information:
Confronted with knowledge of dozens of apparently random disasters each day, what can a human heart do but slam its doors? No mortal can grieve that much. We didn't evolve to cope with tragedy on a global scale. Our defense is to pretend there's no thread of event that connects us, and that those lives are somehow not precious and real like our own. It's a practical strategy, to some ends, but the loss of empathy is also the loss of humanity, and that's no small tradeoff.6
Kingsolver writes about how the loss of empathy is also the loss of humanity: by closing themselves off to caring for others, people can allow horrible crimes to occur.
While acknowledging the costs of psychic numbing, Lifton also identifies a benefit: sometimes numbing allows you to perform a task that would be challenging if you were distracted by strong emotions. He explains:
And yet, [psychic numbing] isn't all negative. For instance, I realize that if you take the example of a surgeon who is performing a delicate operation, you don't want him or her to have the same emotions as a family member of that person being operated on. There has to be some level of detachment where you bring your technical skill to bear on it.7
Supporting Lifton’s argument, Kristof reveals how he experiences a degree of psychic numbing in his own work as a journalist:
In a career [of] reporting I heard a lot of really wrenching stories about murder and rape and everything else, and at this point, and see I'm not really proud of it, I may be a little embarrassed about it, [but] I can listen pretty dispassionately to the most inhuman stories. And they, most of the time, don't, you know, really bother me. Maybe it's that sort of clinical role of a—of a surgeon somewhere in [an] operating theater, but I can, you know, approach things normally as a journalist and treat it with a certain amount of professional distance.8
While on the one hand Kristof describes how he approaches his work writing about human suffering “with a certain amount of professional distance,” on the other hand he is bothered by these stories. While working in Cambodia, he was so affected by the plight of two young girls that he bought their freedom from a brothel.
Kristof’s dilemma—how to express compassion for the people he meets while also writing the most effective story—represents a dilemma many of us confront.We live in an era of endless access to information about human suffering around the world. What do we do with this information? What should we do with it? There are no simple answers to these questions, and in our attempts to address them we confront how we define our universe of responsibility—the individuals and groups whom we feel an obligation to care for and protect. For whom do we show compassion and empathy? Why? Under what conditions? In the following readings, Kristof and Slovic point out that all too often we define our universe of responsibility narrowly, making room for only one person. What would our communities—local, national, and global—look like if more people were in the habit of paying attention to those in need, rather than tuning them out?
- Gregory H. Stanton, "About Genocide," International Association of Genocide Scholars, Genocide Watch, 2002, http://www.genocidescholars.org.
- Quoted in Macief Kozlowski, “The Mission that Failed: A Polish Courier Who Tried to Help the Jews,” in My Brother’s Keeper? Recent Polish Debates on the Holocaust, ed. Antony Polonsky (Routledge, 1990), 83.
- Nicholas Kristof, “Save the Darfur Puppy,” New York Times, May 10, 2007.
- Robert J. Lifton, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (Basic Books, 1986), 442, http://www.holocaust-history.org/lifton/LiftonT442.shtml.
- Conversations with History, Robert Jay LiftonInterview, Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley, November 2, 1999, http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu/people/Lifton/lifton-con3.html.
- Barbara Kingsolver, High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never (New York, Harper Perennial, 1996), 232.
- Reporter, (00:36:25).
- Leni Yahil, Ina Friedman, and Haya Galai. The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry 1932–1944 (Oxford University Press, 1991), 545.
*The reading “Is Knowledge Enough?” (pages 367–370) in Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior provides more information about why people may have ignored or discounted information about Nazi atrocities during the Holocaust.
** An abstract is a brief summary that highlights the main points of an academic study.
***Lifton found evidence of psychic numbing in the survivors of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and in Nazi doctors who performed inhumane experiments on concentration camp prisoners.