Sunday, June 13, 2010

Crushed Empathy

Hard to read in parts (I skipped them, I'm not ashamed to admit) but superb and well overdue in a national paper is this New York Times article on the connection between violence towards animals and violent, unempathetic behavior in general.
Finally, forensics labs and law enforcement agencies across the U.S. are making this long-obvious link (what's Canada doing?). Many serial killers were later found to have tortured local pets, and many family abusers have been animal abusers - it's all about a lack of sensitivity to the pain of others, worn down by abuse they endured themselves (directly by adults or by their impoverished and dangerous environment). It is also, of course, about power and control. If you feel the boot-heel of the universe is grinding your face everyday - to paraphrase Orwell - then you will try to hold yourself together by hurting the nearest convenient target: say, a puppy or a toddler. Mental health depends on having a degree of control over one's life. Tragically, violence against weaker beings is the only control available to some people.
Randall Lockwood is at the A.S.P.C.A.'s forensics department.
Along with possible early abuse or genetic and biological components, Lockwood also spoke of the frequent association between environment and acts of violence, how poverty often creates the sense of persecution and injustice that makes some people feel justified in striking back in order to gain the sense of power and control they otherwise lack.  
Nobody in their right mind needs to be told that severe conditions (neglect, abuse, hunger, toxic and understimulating surroundings) tend to give rise to severe children. But it seems to be one of those items of common knowledge that no one wants to admit - if admitting means addressing it and fixing it. It means admitting to horrible living conditions in otherwise rich cities. It means admitting systemic cracks in certain cultures within cultures. For example, many poor boys join gangs because they have no fathers around to give them direction, no job prospects, and often no one to love them or accept them except gang members. But gang membership is a cruel kind of acceptance, involving the crushing of any innate empathy - as empathy is equated with weakness.
The brain is a highly plastic organ, ready to adapt to whatever environment it finds itself in. It doesn't always adapt in a way conducive to the greater good.
No child is an island: whatever stunts his growth, stunts the entire community. And the companion animals we bring into our homes are part of that community, too. We ignore their abuse at their peril and our own.


  1. This is a very important concept, a factor that motivates most of the terrible things that happen in this world. Thank you for voicing it so eloquently. Would you be willing to work it up into a proposal for an "Ideas" program on CBC Radio.

  2. Thanks for the feedback and suggestion. Alas, IDEAS rejected both my proposals in the past. I'm not so eager to try a third one. Besides, they seem to be airing really weird material these years. Never the saem since Lister left.