Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Canada's Growing Empathy Deficit

When I was a young man growing up in the prairies I was under the impression that I lived in the kinder, gentler part of the Americas. We had a quiet, subdued sense of pride that led us to stitch on red maple leafs on our backpacks before we went off to see the world.

Now, I'm not so sure. It's as if Canada has become Uncle Sam's mini-me, a smaller version of a set of qualities we once thought were exclusive to our neighbors to the south.

At the heart of my disappointment is the realization that Canadians at a fundamental level no longer give a shit about people outside their immediate family. Call it what you will, but for me it arises out of a lack of empathy for others, especially those on the fringe of our society.

In my opinion, the real test for empathy arises in our ability to share the feelings and emotions of those who are much different from ourselves. It's much easier to be empathetic to those who share our core beliefs and conform to our expectations of personal conduct.

Warning, the following paragraphs are intended to make you feel uncomfortable.

If you are a parent or can imagine yourself some day becoming one, a healthy dose of mirror neurons would make you cringe when thinking about the plight of Omar Kkadr. In his story we find two of a parent's worst fears: your child is led astray and then once his misdeeds are revealed, there is no compassion shown and the powers that be decide to make an example of him. Forget that he was a child soldier brainwashed by his terrorist father. Forget that the Supreme Court of Canada found that his rights had been violated and forget that he was tortured in order to extract a confession in the hell hole of Guantanamo Bay. All that love that you poured out of your soul into your child doesn't matter. Your child is a terrorist and that's the end of it.

Sure there were many Canadians who could not allow for this injustice to go unnoticed, but they were a tiny minority. The majority of Canadians were wholly indifferent and were untouched or turned away when they saw the boy in a captured video take off his shirt to show that he had been beaten and that he cried for his mother. No big deal, we'll do a plea bargain.

Then there's the recent push back from the Ontario Superior Court's decision to strike down the Canadian laws surrounding prostitution, an act which is not illegal. Again, imagine your little girl or little boy being led astray and ending up in the sex trade. Not something anyone would want for their child, and can you imagine that your child would then be brutally murdered and have his or her body fed to the pigs that the murderer kept on his farm a la Robert Pickton, who claimed he wanted to kill one more woman to make it an even fifty.
What's more important protecting sex trade workers from horrific acts of violence or clinging onto the outdated belief that our laws surrounding prostitution are effective deterrents? Seems that holding up the moral order of things is more important, and if bad things happened to those people, well, they deserved to be punished.

Finally, for my last example that makes me shake my head in disbelief, let's move from the fringe into the heart of Canadian society to see how cold a heart that wears the maple leaf can become. Yes, I'm talking about the former Commander of Canada's largest military base, Colonel Russell Williams.

In his case, we find a sociopathic lack of empathy. This is a man who thought up and starred in his home-made snuff videos. This is a man who was thought to be a upstanding member of the community, but in reality was a monster. This was the guy next door.

Of the many things that I find shocking in the Williams case is how is it that no one was aware of what was going on? I don't believe for an instant that he hadn't given himself away before he was arrested. In his murder of Cpl. Marie-France Commeau he used his position as Base Commander to find out about Cpl. Commeau whereabouts. Nothing of this kind of behavior ever appeared previously? This smacks of complicity, but we'll never know; he pleaded guilty to his horrific crimes and will most likely spend the rest of his days in prison.

In closing, I think we need to drop the pretense that we are morally superior to the Americans. Over the last thirty years, we've lost the ability to plumb the depths of human despair and take notice so that we act in a compassionate manner. In case if you hadn't noticed we have dropped from first on the United Nations Human Development Index to eighth, largely as a result of the growing disparities amongst the people who call Canada home.

1 comment:

  1. Brian, I can tell you that the top ranks of commerce, law and finance are home to a great many high-functioning sociopaths. Their emotional deficit actually facilitates their rise to the top.

    Williams, however, was a psychopath at least for the last several years prior to this arrest.


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