Understanding Crime And History: A Defense Of Empathy

Why empathy with even bad people is necessary.

Crime in our present day world is nasty and unpleasant to think about.

As is the many criminal occurances that occur in history. Not only that, but the violence that unfolds causes us to react. We don’t like to see other people get hurt and abused, so naturally, we think in terms of emotions.

This is fine, and you are entitled to react however you want to the world around you. But when it comes to historical debate, preventing crime or writing literature, it’s not enough. I’d argue that you have to understand why people act the way they do. Without that understanding, you are utterly clueless to prevent future horrors.

That’s why I’m arguing that if you are going to judge a moment in history, a wicked action by a character or a current event on the news, you must understand why it happened. Of course, if you are a victim of a senseless crime yourself, then you do not have to strain your brain in trying to rationalise the horrors that occured.

This article is not intended for the victims of crime, but those who ‘study’ and ‘comment’ on it and try to influence the public perception on crime.

But for criminologists, police, doctors, judges, military, policy makers and writers, it is imperative that before you make a judgement, that you take the time to figure out motives, behaviour and the world we live in.

To clear up a misconception about ‘understanding’ a person. Understanding is not the same as ‘making excuses’ or ‘taking anything away from the victim.’ Absolutely not. But the ability to see crime from the perspective of the criminal will help you better understand the events that have unfolded. More than that, it will help preventing future crime.

Empathy also makes for sharper judgement. It’s one thing to argue that Stalin’s gulags were evil because they make you feel bad. But its a next-level argument if you can discern Stalin and co’s motives, behaviour patterns and tactics. The best critics of tyranny, like Hannah Arendt, manage to combine judgements with empathy and research.

Because of that, we shouldn’t associate the word ’empathy’ with hippie 1960s university students protesting for Greenpeace. Empathising with criminals can be a nasty and unpleasant experience, that isn’t pretty and doesn’t make you feel good inside.

I started to think about ’empathy’ in the context of crime and history when I listened to this lecture by Canadian psychologist Dr. Jordan Peterson.

Peterson is often associated with his strong stance on free speech, his advocacy for ‘great Western literature’ and his mantra of personal responsibility in an age of chaos. But one of his most powerful and provactive ideas is about ‘why people commit atrocities.’ As he puts it: ‘The Nazis were human, and so are you.’

When we talk about crime and history, as if we share nothing in common with the criminal, we are in a stage of unhelpful denial. Dr. Peterson does not stop his ideas there, however. He argues that you can accept the dark sides of human nature, and still live a good life. This isn’t ‘downplaying’ the horrors that occured in World War II, but ensuring that they don’t happen again.

Psychologist, academic and well known writer, Steven Pinker, in “The Better Angels Of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” argues that through commerce and Enlightenment era reasoning skills (as with others), violence has decreased throughout time. However, he also argues that this not necessarily forever. Although I may be skeptical of Pinker’s hypothesis, he is bang on in his assertion that empathy and reason are keys to crime reduction.

Which begs the question: does society promote empathy and reason? I want to say yes. But I don’t think I can say no, either. Instead, I’ll argue that its restrictive. We have little problem showing empathetic to people we do like- but struggle to do it to our enemies.

As an Australian, I have watched the controversy around Bettina Arndt unfold, with horror in my eyes. Putting aside the silliness of revoking an Order of Australia award based on a Twitter post, I find it alarming that the discussion about domestic violence in Australia is based solely on emotional reaction.

For those who have no clue what I’m talking about, here is an article by The Australian that outlines what happened. Australians are right to be outraged over the murder of its citizens, especially women and children. You also do not have to like Arndt’s comments. But it’s a classic case of jumping to assumptions.

In the recent opinion piece by David Leser for the Sydney Morning Herald, he argues that the root cause for domestic violence is simple. It’s misogyny. And you know what? He could be right. But it’s not a good enough answer. Misogyny is a word used to primarily describe behaviour, not intent. It’s also a severly subjective word, that can’t be measured by any quantitative data.

What I consider to be ‘misogyny’ in men will greatly differ to any writer at the Sydney Morning Herald. And that’s okay. But if we are going to prevent future crime, better our justice system, and not fail men or women, we must not resort to reductive judgements, no matter how tempting they may be.

Leser does not talk about substance abuse, financial insecurity, or poor social interpretation skills in his article as reasons why men hurt women. Instead, he just labels it as ‘misogyny.’ I can see why. In such a reactive world where crucial events play out on our Twitter feeds, the mere suggestion that violent-doers aren’t cartoonish characters will probably be interpreted as victim blaming.

Not only is that poor interpretation of people’s words (and as a literary blogger, something I actively fight against) but its unfair and stiffles progress in the fields of medicine and psychology. Those are two fields that involve asking hard questions about individuals, and they must be able to operate in an environment where they are free to pursue their thoughts.

The question of ‘why do people hurt each other?’ is a complex, multi-webbed question with no easy answer. And it’s sad to see ‘advocates for justice and women’ dumb down psychology and motive to appease their feelings.

In the field of history, military and political science, there is a large emphasis on the motives behind action. As the legendary Chinese general Sun Tzu puts it:

“Know thy self, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories.”

That is true. If I wrote a history paper about Mao Zedong’s rise in China, and did not ask myself ‘what motives him and his base?’ I would produce a poor paper, and rightly so, get a bad mark.

If I were to create a cure for a disease, I wouldn’t be able to do so without understanding the human body and how it operates. So why is crime different? Empathy, as I said earlier, is not an excuse for bad action. It’s a valid process for change.

Sure- the questions asked will sound offensive to the sheltered mind. But I’d rather that they are asked out in the public, as opposed to the scientist remaining silent.

It’s a concept that we are still yet to learn.