On Empathy

So the other night I’m in a sort of chat-room, and the topic of discussion is Dave Sim, author of the comic book “Cerebus” and loonbag extraordinaire. Apparently it turns out that anyone who feels that Sim is a nutjob is just jumping on the “PC bandwagon” and “there are no factual errors with any of Sim’s points”. Yeah, whatever. I managed to bite my tongue and not say anything. Eventually the conversation drifted from Sim’s attitudes towards women and into Sim’s attitudes towards animals. I wasn’t even aware that Sim’s absurd rantings extended to that area, but apparently they do. Judging from his fans, his opinions regarding animals are: “They are food, and food doesn’t have rights.”

Apparently it’s the old Judeo-Christian bit from Genesis 1:28:

And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

It seems that Sim-itism teaches that since humans are smarter and stronger than animals, we can do with them as we please. Also, we outnumber all other species, which I think is going to come as a surprise to the insects.

It’s been said that a warning sign of sociopathic tendencies in children is cruelty to animals. Such behavior indicates a lack of empathy that can eventually manifest itself as cruelty to humans.

But such beliefs can lead to other antisocial behavior as well. It’s one thing to believe that one’s “intelligence,” “abilities,” and “power” will give one certain advantages over others, yet another to believe that it gives one a right to advantages over others. (And yet another thing to believe that these things indicate being favored by God.)

At that point you’ve entered “might makes right” territory, where the more gifted individual is determined simply by who is left standing. Ironically, many of the people who oppose Darwinism as anti-God have no problem with using God to justify a belief in it.

And with that, you enter neo-Conservative territory, where America, having been blessed by God over all other nations, and possessing a great deal of wealth and military strength, has naturally earned the right to do whatever it wants, and anybody, including Americans, who say otherwise, is an enemy of Freedom and God. It’s a world where the President, having risen to the top of the human food chain, has earned the right to do whatever he wants to whomever he wants. A world where we expect everyone to be outraged when tragic things happen to Americans, yet don’t have too much of a problem with the inhumane treatment of “savages” and “animals” in our prisons.

In other words, a group of people who ally themselves so closely with God cannot even develop the simplest forms of empathy. A boy named Peter Parker, via men named Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, once realized that “With great power comes great responsibility.” That’s it in a nutshell. Does being given dominion over ‘lesser beings’ mean we get to treat them as we please, or does it mean we must take care of them in ways they are unable to do so themselves? Does might make right or does it mean responsibility?

In our current sociopolitical climate, we decide first who is on the correct side and then determine morality based on their actions. In other words, if Smith is right and Jones is wrong, then actions Smith does are obviously good and actions Jones does — even if they’re the same actions — are obviously bad. Thus, men like Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Ashcroft never have to question their own actions — if those actions were bad, then they, being good men, wouldn’t be doing them. Q.E.D. That’s the neat part about being chosen by God — it automatically makes you the good guy!

And yet, these people who seem to have such strong notions of good and evil, can’t even discern right from wrong. The tepid reactions of the administration, where even half-sincere apologies have only come after seeing that this scandal isn’t just going to go away, indicate that these men don’t actually see what the big deal is. I mean, it’s all so clear: If they weren’t terrorist sympathizers, they wouldn’t be in our prisons, even though few if any have had any sort of trial. And since they’re terrorist sympathizers, they’re akin to terrorists, who are only savages and animals. And as we said before, God has given us dominion over animals, to do with as we wish. By questioning the act of leading naked men around by leashes, you question our soldiers, our mission, our leaders, and God.

Describing the maltreated prisoners as “savages” and “animals” isn’t my words, that’s what I’ve been seeing in various editorials and blogs that wish to minimize the seriousness of the charges. It’s a nice trick. By dehumanizing people, we pop them into the category of things we have dominion over and — tah-dah! — our actions are then sanctioned by God! Hooray for us! And why stop at people we think might possibly be in some way tangentially related to terrorists? After all, can’t we also “prove” via all sorts of shady science that white people are, on the whole, more intelligent than non-white people? Shouldn’t that entitle whites to dominion over them? Are men on the whole physically stronger than women? Surely, then, men have earned the right to treat women however they want!

Theists often wonder how atheists can have any sort of morality, since they have no God to base it on. I am boggled by this. I can’t understand how any worthwhile religion could exclude a concept of empathy, which is the simplest foundation for a morality. It’s not hard. Put yourself in the other guy’s shoes. Would you want to be treated like that? If those prison photos depicted American soldiers being treated that way by foreign soldiers, how would you feel? I’m wary of anyone who can’t seem to do this, and any religion that doesn’t teach it.

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