Dec 2006

The Limits of Empathy

This is a tough one. As with any attempt to discuss the reasons and motivations behind deplorable acts, one runs the risk – thanks to our psychologically illiterate culture – of appearing to condone them. In 2004 Jenny Tonge (a British Liberal Democrat MP) was sacked from her position for stating that she understood why Palestinians might choose to become suicide bombers. The Israeli ambassador to the UK welcomed her dismissal with the claim that “We must stand up against such remarks, which are an incitement against the state of Israel and against Jews.”

Now, I’m no fan of Jenny Tonge. Her statements about the Kalahari Bushmen were staggeringly offensive and displayed the kind of patronising colonial mindset that clearly blights the upper reaches of the British establishment to this day. Though I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that this attitude should be found in someone willing to bear the title “Baroness”. It’s very difficult to take a liberal democrat seriously when they occupy an unelected position in an archaic ruling aristocracy.

Nonetheless, Tonge’s sacking from the LibDem front bench was one of the more outrageous and cowardly acts to have occurred in mainstream politics of late. And just think of the competition it faces! The idea that “understanding” should be considered anything other than a positive thing is a demonstration of just how screwed up our culture is. Personally I’d introduce a policy whereby every MP was asked whether or not they could understand why Palestinians become suicide bombers. Those without the requisite levels of understanding, imagination and empathy should be fired. Certainly they shouldn’t be permitted to develop and implement policies that would affect anyone beyond their family and circle of friends.

As for the Israeli ambassador and his idiotic remarks; there’s few things that’ll generate anti-Israeli sentiment faster than Israeli officials telling the rest of the world what it may or may not understand.

But it’s not Palestinian suicide bombing that I wish to discuss here. Instead I want to go further into the heart of darkness. To a place we hear a lot less about, but where the horrors and atrocities make most of what we do hear pale into insignificance. I want to journey to the outer reaches of human behaviour where empathy, understanding… perhaps even psychological analysis… run into a brick wall that has most sane people reaching for the word “evil”. I want to talk about what’s been going on in Central Africa of late.

It’s fashionable within the liberal left to ascribe all of Africa’s problems to colonialism. If it wasn’t for the imperialism of white Europe, black Africa would be all sweetness and light. A more nuanced liberal analysis will draw attention to western post-colonial economic policy as a contributing factor. But ultimately it’s a view that boils down to an unconscious assumption of white supremacy.

Of course, I’m not denying the role that both colonialism and continued economic exploitation have played in creating the political chaos we see in much of Africa today. There can be no doubt that European and American policies have had a spectacularly destructive influence on African society (and not just Europe and America either… the tragedy currently occurring in Sudan is being fuelled in part by Chinese economic policy). However, just like the overbearing parent who takes credit for every success their child achieves and blames themself for every failure (as a strategy of establishing control through guilt), the liberal attitude towards Africa denies – or at least grossly minimises – the responsibility that Africans must bear for their own decisions and actions.

It’s important that this is not viewed as a race issue. The atrocities I wish to discuss here are being carried out by black men against black women in Central Africa. But anyone who wishes to draw racial conclusions should probably bear in mind the skin colour of those who ran the gas chambers in Europe in the 1940s. White Germans were responsible for arguably the worst genocide in human history. And it’s only “arguably” the worst because it has competition from black Rwandans and yellow Cambodians. The capacity for extreme cruelty and violence are clearly not the exclusive preserve of any skin colour.

Belgian Congo… The Congo… DRC… Zaire… DRC

And so, finally, to specifics. It was Natalie Bennett’s article in yesterday’s Guardian that prompted me to spend most of the past 24 hours thinking and reading about recent events in the Congo (see this map if you’re unsure of the geography). So thanks a lot Natalie; I’m now extremely depressed. Of course, it’s not really Natalie’s fault. Anyone who spends a little time reading the reports emerging from that war-torn nation can’t help but feel depressed.

For most of my life the Democratic Republic of The Congo (DRC) was called Zaire. In 1997 the name was changed back to Democratic Republic of The Congo – it’s name between 1964 and 1971. For the majority of the 20th century, however (up until 1960), this vast area of land wasn’t a true nation at all. It was called Belgian Congo and was run from Brussels for the benefit of a bunch of north Europeans.

There’s no question that the effects of colonialism have contributed to the political instability in the region. However, the people of The Congo have now had more than forty years of independence and – by almost every measure – conditions have worsened consistently for those forty years.

Similarly, the desire of the industrial west to exploit the vast natural resources of The Congo has generated a massive incentive for disparate groups to control those resources. But liberal opinion does not – and should not – consider the desire for resources an acceptable motive for US political violence in Iraq. So the fact that the west is willing to pay top-dollar for Congolese diamonds, uranium or gold does not absolve the local militia groups of responsibility for their actions. Since 1996 DRC has been wracked by the single most violent conflict on the planet since World War Two. Conservative estimates place the number of dead at four million. That’s four million central Africans (not merely Congolese, for many of the dead are from neighbouring nations dragged into the conflict) massacred by other central Africans.

We must become more aware of the role that the west plays in this violence. For that’s something – in theory at least – we can do something about. But we must be very careful not to assume more responsibility than we bear. If I pay a man to commit murder then I am a murderer. But so is the man I paid. And he bears equal – if not more – responsibility for the act of violence. Certainly nobody should be making excuses for his actions.

The Inhumanity of Men

Did you notice that in the previous paragraph I dropped my usual gender neutrality? I didn’t say “If I pay a person…” It was a man I was paying. This was to better introduce the aspect of the Congolese violence that is perhaps most disturbing; the extreme sexual violence carried out against women. It’s at this point that I advise you to stop reading if descriptions of such violence are likely to upset you badly. My head’s in a pretty bad place right now having examined some of the reports – and it’s not the first time I’ve read such accounts. This is seriously nasty stuff.

I don’t wish to minimise any form of violence. There are very few victims of rape (even extremely violent rape… all rape is violence, but there are levels of violence as we shall soon discover) who would prefer not to have survived the ordeal. So, as far as most people are concerned, it’s better to be raped than murdered. Let me quickly repeat, this is not an attempt to play down the severity of rape. Indeed, as you’ll see, I intend quite the opposite. For while I can honestly say that I understand why a Palestinian might choose to put on an explosive belt, my empathy and imagination fall short when confronted with the tactics of, for example, the Federation for the Liberation of Rwanda (one of the most active militias in The Second Congo War, and generally considered largely responsible for the preceding genocide in Rwanda).

So there’s a disconnect. A Palestinian suicide bomber is arguably committing a “worse” crime than an FLR rapist. Murder Vs. Rape. Yet the worse crime is understandable while the “lesser” one is not. What’s the reason for this disconnect? Well, before I try to answer that let’s get the nasty graphic bit out of the way so you can better understand my failure of understanding. Let me repeat my previous warning… this is disturbing.

“Fistula”. I’d never heard the word before yesterday. It’s an extremely rare medical condition where the wall between the vagina and the bladder and/or rectum is ruptured. Extremely rare, that is, except in Central Africa. In the rest of the world the condition generally occurs due to serious complications during childbirth. Most gynecologists and obstetricians will go their entire career without ever encountering a single case. In DRC, however, there’s an epidemic. And it’s not down to an increase in complicated births.

Many of the militias in DRC have adopted a deliberate policy of terror through mass rape. There’s no question that this is a horribly effective way to cause massive social damage. However rape – even violent rape – does not as a rule cause fistula. No, instead the militiamen, having already gang-raped the woman (often a huge number of times over a period of weeks or months) will deliberately inflict major damage to her genitals before sending her back to her village. More often than not this is achieved by carefully shooting the woman’s vagina at point-blank range. “Carefully” because they want her to survive, to return to her village. Having commit this sickening crime against the woman, they then use her as a psychological weapon against the rest of her people.

Often the fistula is not a result of a bullet. Knives, broken glass or just sharp sticks are used to cause as much damage as possible. Girls as young as 12 months have been subjected to this violence. Sometimes, prior to the mutilation women and young girls are impregnated, held for months, and then given violent late-term abortions. The vast majority of women who suffer this are rendered permanently incontinent, incapable of bearing children or of menstruation, sexually inactive and prone to a lifetime of unpleasant infections. As though that weren’t enough, the extreme incontinence produced by fistula means they face a lifetime smelling of shit and piss… social outcasts.

The Limits of Empathy

If we are entirely unemotional about these horrors, it is possible to understand the reason that militias would adopt this policy of extreme sexual violence. Indeed, this reason has already been mentioned… it’s a very effective method of terrorism and social disruption. But while that may provide an adequate analysis for the history books, it’s a world away from an understanding of the individual man who chooses to commit these acts.

And it’s here that I hit the aforementioned brick wall. You see, to me this appears, bizarrely, like “learned psychopathy”. An isolated case of a psychopath committing vile acts of sexual violence is comprehensible in the context of a severe personality disorder. But when this form of sadistic violence is adopted as policy and willingly implemented by large numbers of men, then we’re faced with something entirely different.

Can we describe these men as suffering from a personality disorder? Are they mentally ill? It seems to me that an essential element in any diagnosis of psychopathy is that the individual is acting in a manner incompatible with the values and sanctioned behaviour patterns of their society. This is why, in our own culture, we do not diagnose as psychopaths those businessmen who are willing to place career advancement and profit above more human concerns… such behaviour is clearly sanctioned within the context of capitalism. It makes little sense to describe as psychopathic any behaviour which is actively encouraged by one’s culture. Psychopathy has both medical and social components.

But in order to work successfully, industrial capitalism has had to insulate the individual businessman from the negative consequences of their actions. This prevents basic human empathy from intervening and forcing a change in behaviour. No such insulation from the consequences of their actions exists for a Congolese militiaman. It perplexes me, and it disturbs me. So while I can envision a set of extreme circumstances that might see me strap a bomb to my body, I simply cannot find any empathy at all with a man willing to repeatedly rape a woman and then shove a broken bottle into her body in order to lash out at his enemies.

I therefore reject outright the implication of Natalie Bennett’s article that this behaviour is essentially a factor of the “maleness” of the perpetrators. Something else is at work in DRC. Something that has even me reaching for the word “evil”.

Posted in: Opinion