The concentric circles of our empathy

Sunday National, 27th February 2022.

Quoting Neville Chamberlain is one of the conventions – you might say the clichés – of war reporting in Britain. When Germany annexed the Sudetenland in 1938, the Prime Minister notoriously described the occupation as “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.”

The line rings down the decades as an appeal to British insularity, indifference and dumb ignorance of the world. But Chamberlain was probably making a fair assumption. Only relatively few people in the United Kingdom were likely to have a particularly sophisticated understanding of the frontier territory separating Germany and the former Czechoslovakia. Fewer, perhaps, cared. “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here,” over a dispute between strangers, he said.

Today, only a few of us are likely to have a deep understanding of the state of modern Ukraine and the realities of modern Russian politics. I’m not one of them. I know enough about international law to know that the Russian Federation has repeatedly violated the territorial integrity of its neighbours under Putin’s leadership, waging aggressive war under the pretext of protecting national minorities. They did so in Georgia in 2008, and again in the Crimean peninsula in 2014. This week’s invasion was justified in part on the basis of self-defence. This is a bleak joke.

International law once facilitated this kind of brigandage. Napoleon could stick a sabre through the map of Europe, collecting crowns, claiming territory. After 1945, the basic norms of the world order were reset. The principle that you can settle political disputes through aggressive war or acquire territory by conquest were discarded as an existential threat to humankind. Russia’s actions this week are a flagrant and unjustifiable violation of these principles. Might cannot make right.

But beyond this? They say the beginning of wisdom is recognising what you don’t understand. So cards on the table. I have nothing intelligent or original to say about the situation in Ukraine. I have never been there. I have no particular insight into the region, its politics, and only the most
superficial understanding of its history. Having grown up after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I didn’t live through the protracted experience of the Cold War many of you will remember. I was 5 years old when the Soviet Union dissolved.

But despite this, despite all of the gaps in my knowledge and the limits in my understanding – these do not feel like faraway countries, or places of which we know nothing. I know many others feel the same way. The emotional reaction this invasion has prompted has been palpable. Why

For some of us, it will be personal. My dad visited Kherson Oblast three times in the last decade. He reflected this week on being “welcomed with great warmth and generosity by people of all backgrounds.” He stayed with, talked to and was fed by people who are now experiencing the destruction, anxiety and fear of this incursion. He was emotional on Thursday, contemplating their predicament, hoping for the best, fearing the worst, wondering what has and will become of them.

It is amazing what a sense of proximity can do. Emotions are like fire. They catch, communicate
themselves, and spread. Hope, anger, despair. It isn’t just rolling news which made the Russian
incursion feel so affecting on a simple human level. I know I can’t have been alone this week in being glued compulsively to social media. Because of sources like Twitter, this conflict has had a real human immediacy to it.

Watching the footage, seeing ordinary folk in grief, babies born in bomb shelters, boulevards turned into battlegrounds, boys into soldiers before our eyes – has an almost irresistible emotional force. We’ve watched pensioners dressing down soldiers. Yesterday, one Ukrainian parliamentarian tweeted that she “planned to plant tulips and daffodils on my backyard today. Instead, I learn to fire arms and get ready for the next night of attacks on Kyiv. We are not going anywhere.” What can one say? It has an almost surreal quality. If you didn’t know that troops were on the march and the dangers were all too real – you’d take it for fiction.

The philosopher David Hume called them “concentric circles of our empathy.” It’s a lovely metaphor. His theory is that we owe our primary allegiance to our families, then our friends, and our sense of solidarity begins to shrink as our social relations become more and more peripheral. Social media is often maligned as a mechanism for alienating people from one another, stoking conflict, encouraging the worst rather than the best of human nature.

But it also has the capacity to collapse the spaces between us. Doomscrolling through Twitter can confront you with misinformation and disinformation, decontextualised footage and fake news – but it also opens a window into the human realities of conflict, seeing something of what it means to the ordinary people caught up in it.

Hume’s great friend Adam Smith might recognise the affect. Smith believed that we experience
“fellow-feeling for the misery of others” because we recognise and come to share in their feelings. We’re wired for empathy – a finding borne out by modern studies in neuroscience. “A smiling face is, to everybody that sees it, a cheerful object; as a sorrowful countenance, on the other hand, is a melancholy one,” he wrote in 1759. It is still true.

In Ukraine, we can see the courage and the fear with your own eyes. We can watch tanks rolling up the road in real time. We are confronted with the aftermath of ballistic missiles crashing into civilian settlements seconds after the impact. Looking out of a stranger’s smartphone, we drive past devastated military convoys, the smoke still blowing in the wind. And yes, seeing the footage of callow boys in Russian uniform, it is difficult not to feel for them too.

Remember Dick Gaughan’s line. “Who’s given a gun and then pushed to the fore, and expected to die for the land of our birth, though we’ve never owned one lousy handful of earth?” Every war is a war against ordinary men, women and children. Save your ire for that waxwork ghoul in the Kremlin – you see less Botox on the red carpet at the Oscars – and the cronies, enablers and apologists who have visited this conflict on their own people.

It may sound trite to talk about a “digital frontline,” but with the prevalence of technology in the
conflict zone, the lived reality is increasingly unflinchingly and unforgivingly unfiltered online. We are now our own editors, deciding what we can bear to know, bear to see.

Ours is often an unjust world. Every day, human conflict claims human lives, immiserates communities, squanders the gift and opportunities of a peaceful life. Our circles of concern are
almost always too narrow. But these platforms have the ability to make is feel more of the humanity of people who find themselves caught up in conflict in not so faraway countries, allowing us all to learn something about the people involved, in life and in death.

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