Last weekend, I spent four days in Washington, DC, and while I was there, I began Friday morning at the kitchen table with a friend telling me over breakfast about a professional article she was reading on empathy. Later that evening, with the same friend and others, I went to see a play about the genocide in Rwanda, when possibly as many as one million people were killed in 100 days. Think about what that would require.
When we have no capacity for empathy, we become worse than wild beasts, who generally kill only for food and protection. Also while I was in Washington, I read news reports about the shocking number of politicians in our country who lack even a minimal capacity for empathy. As bad as that is in any person, these politicians then combine that emotional hole with tremendous cynicism and political cowardice.
Following the attacks in Paris, American politicians decided to show the Islamic State that even without the terrorists coming to our country, they were able to scare us so badly we shit on ourselves in panic and started attacking their victims. Thus we had governors rushing to get in line to declare that Syrian refugees—people trying to escape from the brutal monstrosities of the Islamic State—would not be allowed into American states under any circumstances.
Here in Georgia, where politicians have been humiliating us in front of the planet Earth for the last century, our governor decided to follow that proud tradition and declared that if Syrian refugees do make their way to Georgia, state agencies will be forbidden from providing any assistance. It seems our governor would kick the needy away from himself, just like Jesus would. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, in a hysterical display of cowardice, said he would not allow toddler orphans into his state. He actually said that.
Political leaders have loud microphones, and the rhetoric they use helps to create a climate for what can be said in public discourse, and what they say also shapes attitudes. If they consistently call on us to be better people, to at least strive for the ideals we claim to believe, that language has an effect. If instead they use a rhetoric of intolerance, then the general level of intolerance in a country increases. In last Friday’s Washington Post, Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson said of Syrian refugees, “If there’s a rabid dog running around in your neighborhood, you’re probably not going to assume something good about that dog…” Carson wasn’t talking about the psychopaths who did the killing in Paris. He was talking about people trying to get away from such psychopaths.
One of the most common techniques of xenophobia is to dehumanize the people who you hate (or who you find it convenient to pretend to hate, say, if you’re a despicable hypocrite running for president). Thus Ben Carson—who proclaims over, and over, and over how Christian he is—compares people fleeing murderers to rabid dogs. With such rhetoric from a presidential candidate, it becomes more acceptable to treat people as less than human.
Since our presidential candidates make it acceptable to degrade refugees, a Texas official, the agriculture commissioner, also compared the Syrian refugees to rattlesnakes. In Europe before World War II, hated people like Jews and Gypsies were referred to as roaches, vermin, rats, and so on. Dehumanization may seem like crude rhetoric (and intellectually, of course, it is crude), but it’s also common and it works. Cold contemptuous politicians can use it to inflame the fear of ignorant people, as we see in the current Republican presidential campaign.
Senator Ted Cruz used a more subtle rhetoric, showing that the Syrian refugees are something “other” than us, not really “our kind” and certainly not something we want in this country. Contrasting all those dangerous refugees to decent Christians, Cruz said that “There is is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror,” indicating that he has never heard of the Ku Klux Klan or the Irish Republican Army or… But no, I bet he has. I bet he’s just an amazingly cynical asshole who will savagely say anything and hurt anyone, as long as it helps him gain more power.
If you were damaged emotionally as a child, so that you cannot empathize with the suffering of other human beings, and if there are no mass killings like Rwanda—or Syria—going on where you live, then maybe you could run for political office.