On Empathy: facing your own vulnerability
I will define the term "empathy" using a psychoanalytic approach, focussing on the difficulty of identifying with the vulnerability of the other. To avoid having to face our own inevitable vulnerability, instead of empathizing, we blame the other for his condition. I combine Margot Waddell's description of the different states of mind and that of a "thinking breast" with Judith Herman's research on trauma. Both describe this inability to face one's own vulnerability as a schizophrenic/"double think" state of mind. I will conclude that empathy is the ability to think and feel with the other, serving as a "thinking breast." Furthermore, I look at the popular blog "Humans of New York" and I take a close look at the work of artist Kirsten Leenaars to study how these two examples help us to think about and feel empathy.
In this paper I will demonstrate that there are strong parallels between the way an individual coerces another human being into slavery and the perpetrator-system that is a result of, or a response to a variable set of circumstances. Abu Ghraib was such an environment which I call a perpetrator-system. I will show how the guards at Abu Ghraib fell victim to this perpetrator-system when they were coerced into acts of abuse to harm others. I will look at the dynamics of the group, leadership, and the context in which people go down a slippery slope in what they perceive as “normal” behavior. The methods used by perpetrators to coerce and enslave others are: disempowerment, isolation, and a lost a sense of autonomy, states you can distill from the guards' recount of their experience. They were in a constant state of fear and distress, as nowhere was safe. The lack of training and leadership further amplified the sense of disempowerment and helplessness. In order to cope with the daily horrors, the guards developed different coping strategies of which justification is the one I have focused on. A way to justify their behavior is by suppressing their inner doubts, which is related to a shift in the normality scale. I have used Errol Morris’ movie Standard Operating Procedure and the accompanying book by Philip Gourevitch as source material for the experience of the guards.