05 May 2011


BULLYING. There is a lively conversation thread building on therapist and science writer Andrea Kuszewski's Facebook page. The genesis was an article titled Jean Decety says bullies' brains might work differently. The gist of the study is (a) "empathy is connected to a part of the brain that processes a first-hand experience of pain", and that (b) children with aggressive conduct disorder (bullies) "can recognize negative emotion, but they process it in a positive way .... seeing others in distress activated the regions of their brains associated with reward." In short, sociopaths get off on the suffering of others, so much so that they go out of their way to inflict suffering. Or, as Kuszewski points out in her conversation thread, "Lack of empathy is described as being incapable of seeing and understanding what the other person is feeling. [In reality] they understand it, they just don't care."

So how does one deal with children or adults who bully others? Obviously by first interrupting the behavior, but then what? How does one reach the mind of someone who processes information and emotions like a photographic negative? Infliction of the same kind of pain on the perpetrator (revenge)? Isolation from society (punishment)? Being required to tend to the needs of victims and their families (sensitization)? Where does justice lie? I suspect that there is no single easy answer. Our response may vary with the individual and the circumstance. In my working life, I've known criminals who were capable of reform, and criminals who were not. Either way, it is helpful to understand why seemingly inexplicable aberrations of behavior happen. Decety's study is a step in the right direction.

RAPE. There is a brief and disturbing video making the rounds on YouTube. It is called What Is Rape Culture?, and features a series of facts which should have any member of society wondering whether we have descended to barbarity, or whether we've been there all along and just didn't hear much about it. Facts like these --

~ 61 percent of homeless women are fleeing rape at home.

~ 1 out of 4 girls are raped before the age of 18.

~ Rape is used as a hate crime against the gay community.

~ Infant rape is on the rise.

~ Men get raped too.

~ Marriage is not a license for rape.

~ Rape does not discriminate against age.

~ Stranger rapes are rare. Most survivors know their attackers.

~ 1 out of 6 boys are raped before the age of 18.

~ Imagine our daughters celebrating a world without rape culture.

~ Creating a world without rape culture starts with you.

If you doubt that rape culture exists, a strong case can be made for its being not only condoned, but institutionalized. Consider the retrogressive legislation (H.R. 3) passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, which, among other provisions, narrows the definition of rape to "forcible rape" -- eliminating situations in which women say no but do not physically fight off an assailant, women who are drugged or verbally threatened and raped, and minors impregnated by adults. The vote in favor of this foolishness was 251 to 175, the majority including 16 anti-choice Democrats. 59 percent of those voting, publicly declared their cavalier attitude toward rape. In the context of the discussion on empathy, would it be fair to say that 59 percent of our legislators are sociopaths? They work for us. We pay for their generous salaries and healthcare. This is gratitude? This is civilized behavior? One can only hope that the Senate, or ultimately the President, will reject this loathsome legislation.

EMPATHY. Let's cultivate it in our lives, and encourage it in others. Please.

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