The thin (blue?) line between callousness and sympathy

What makes us care about what happens to people? And, by contrast, what stops us from caring? A couple of events recently have set me thinking – never a pretty sight admittedly. By coincidence, both events involve the police in London; hence my reference to “blue” in this post’s title.

First, there was the terrible stabbing of police officers in Ealing, West London, in the course of something as banal as checking whether bus travellers had paid the correct fare. The constable is still in a serious condition, but at least it looks now as if his life is safe. His community safety officer colleague was thankfully relatively unscathed, but still required hospital treatment. What intrigued me about my own response to this incident was the not very flattering realisation that I was very much more interested in it, more concerned about the officers’ injuries, more empathetic to their plight, more outraged by the appalling contrast between the trivial nature of the task and the terrible consequences for the officers, than, if I’m honest, I would have been if I’d merely read about a similar occurrence in, say, I don’t know, Glasgow, Penzance or Newcastle. Why? I’m not proud of this, but the answer is simple. It’s merely because I worked in Ealing for 12 years. The stabbing took place almost at the churchyard gate of the church I worship at at weekends when I’m back in London. The fare-dodging purge these officers were engaged in happens regularly at this particular bus-stop (I’ve no idea why as I wouldn’t have had Ealing near the top of a list of fare-evasion capitals of the world) and many’s the time I’ve seen crowds of police and London transport staff doing exactly what they were doing yesterday as I’ve wandered off to Marks and Spencer for a lunchtime sarnie. My emotions were engaged because of my familiarity with the place, because of the feeling that this was somehow also an affront to me personally, because I can picture every detail of the scene with my mind’s eye: the shop fronts, the pavement, the trees with their municipal Christmas lights. But these aren’t really very good reasons, are they?

Second, there’s the outcry over the police’s treatment of disabled protester Jody McIntyre during the recent student demonstrations. Amateur video footage has been posted on the internet, the Guardian newspaper has done a “how disgusting is that?” article, whilst Richard Littlejohn has roused the righteous outrage of all right-thinking radicals by a Daily Mail piece suggesting that Mr McIntyre had it coming as he’s a “professional” protester who’s not even a student. I ought to make it clear that my intrinsic sympathies are a lot closer to the Guardian’s response than the Daily Mail’s (on this as on just about everything else, to be honest) but the same train of thought that had me admitting to not very good reasons for my enhanced sympathy for the Ealing police officers has made me wonder about my response to this case, too. Mine and that of all my fellow lefties reaching for the same tired rhetoric about oppressive police and innocent disabled people. Just imagine, for a moment, that Mr McIntyre was not, in fact, a fellow-traveller with protesting students, but rather a strident member of the English Defence League, or a right-to-life zealot hurling abuse at doctors as they entered an abortion clinic. Would the Guardian be interviewing him? Would the police, had they acted in exactly the same way, have been automatically oppressors and callous offenders against the rights and dignity of disabled people? Be honest. Would they? Really?

This worries me a lot. I’m going out on a limb here, and I accept that I can only speak for myself, but I have come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that our sympathies are aroused not by what we claim – the moral rights and wrongs of specific events, but rather by our pre-existing political allegiances, our random connections with places and people. Our moral outrage comes second: our prejudices and personal connections first.

It is why we can so easily, for example, suddenly decide that global warming isn’t happening because it’s snowing outside our front doors, whilst the planet fries and sizzles for other people, in other places, that we don’t know, and, if we’re really honest, don’t really much care about either.


4 thoughts on “The thin (blue?) line between callousness and sympathy

  1. I think you’re pretty close to the (uncomfortable) truth. Certainly when I first heard about Jody McIntyre’s case there was a “you don’t pick on the disabled” -type reaction which was the complete opposite to my feelings towards the other protesters.

    In other words, it’s as if I’d automatically assigned ‘victim’ status because of the wheelchair – and I’m very worried about that. In a more enlightened world my reaction would have been no different than if he had been any other protester – though that itself would have been ‘informed’ by all the other prejudices I have 😦

  2. Empathy with your own kind is natural & to be expected and to that extent I agree almost completely. I wasn’t thinking EDL. and have some pro life zealot sympathies & wasn’t thinking about that either but I did recall actually enjoying watching some Countryside Alliance protester getting bashed on his head a few years ago. I don’t feel great about that but part of my thinking wasn’t simply “ha ha posh farmer is getting bashed on the head” but ” now you know what it’s like. This what has happened on picket lines & anti Nazi demos for years”. There was also a sense of how dare you stop public opinion ( clear majorities against hunting) being upheld by Parliament? This time I suspect students have public opinion in their side.
    Anyhow I would qualify this. Jody’s treatment was unacceptable regardless of which side he was on and my righteous indignation was aroused by the ludicrous attempts to defend the police’s action. Likewise I have unqualified sympathy/empathy for the stabbed police in Ealing despite having no connection with that area at all.

  3. I think this is true for all of us. We are the priduct of our own upbringing & prejudices. I come from a mining community so pit disasters always have an extra resonance, except the Chilean miners didn’t move me as much somehow. Not as able to identify with them I suppose.

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