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The Political Consequences of Compassion Fatigue


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In The Guardian, Elisa Gabbert traces the history of the concept of “compassion fatigue” and examines its impact on our everyday lives in the present era of relentless disasters and twenty-four-hour news. As Gabbert notes, compassion fatigue was originally a term applied to caregivers, especially nurses and doctors, who experienced adverse psychological consequences after losing patients. The term then entered popular usage as expanding news coverage brought us more knowledge of tragedies and disaster from around the world, even as our ability to do anything about then was limited. Gabbert details her own efforts to over compassion fatigue, and suggests that in order to care at all we must avoid caring too much. Here’s an excerpt:

Compassion is generally seen as pure virtue, but is it always selfless? In The Science of Evil, psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen cites multiple studies that reveal an “empathy circuit” in the brain. These are the parts of the brain that usually activate when, for example, we look at a needle piercing someone else’s hand – the psychology-experiment version of watching the scene in Un Chien Andalou, Luis Buñuel’s surrealist film in which a man appears to slice through a woman’s eyeball with a razor. (It’s actually a sheep’s eye.) I cringe and look away because on some automatic level I imagine it happening to me. In some sense, having empathy is a way of feeling compassion for myself.

Human propensity to empathy, Baron-Cohen claims, much like height and other traits, follows a normal distribution, the so-called bell curve. This means that a select few people have extraordinarily high levels of empathy – he offers anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu as an example – while some at the other end of the curve have zero empathy, including people with narcissistic personality disorder and psychopaths. (My mother once told me she had read that the two professions that test highest for psychopathy are surgeons and Buddhist monks – presumably because both require detachment. It sounds like dubious science, but does suggest another way in which empathy can be a liability: a barrier to objectivity or enlightenment.) The fact that most people are in the middle of the curve, Baron-Cohen writes, suggests that “moderate empathy levels are most adaptive”. Most adaptive for what, we might ask – proliferation of the species, or good ethics? And are policies that favour local proliferation actively harmful to populations farther away?

Average empathy will fail some of the time; we will fail to feel what others are feeling, as the hospice nurse I know put it, even if we try. And this may be a rational response, whether conscious or automatic. Empathy, like any bodily process, has a cost. Hunger would be meaningless if it didn’t make you eat. What good is compassion if it doesn’t translate into concrete, external action? Perhaps it is rational to cut off the supply of emotion if it amounts to wasted energy.

Image from Syria via The Guardian.