Is Empathy an Aid or a Hindrance to Historians?

Leading historians discuss one of the burning questions of the day.

Illustration of Mary Walcott at the Salem witch trials.

Empathy can help us understand an uncomfortable culture

Helen Parr, Professor of History at Keele University and author of Our Boys: The Story of a Paratrooper (Allen Lane, 2018)

In November 1981, some paratroopers in recruit training gang-raped a 15-year-old girl in an Aldershot barracks. The girl met one of the soldiers in a local pub, who took her to his dormitory. There a group of drunken paratroopers tied her to a bed with elasticated cord and five or six of them raped her. They kicked her, urinated on her and stole her underwear as a trophy. Two years later – after some of the soldiers had fought in the Falklands – six men were convicted at Winchester Crown Court of rape, indecent assault and common assault. Two of them pleaded guilty. The longest sentence was five years.

Why did these recruits of an elite regiment, many teenagers themselves, do something so terrible? One explanation suggests it was a consequence of training young men to kill and to dehumanise others. Another might see the perpetrators as isolated psychopaths: ‘bad apples’.

It might be impossible to know exactly why, but the climate in which the rape took place seems worthy of attention. In training, men sorted themselves into informal hierarchies. They talked of some women as ‘sluts’. Some were attracted to violence and wanted to prove their toughness by dominating and humiliating others. The greatest sin was to inform on comrades. Training instilled discipline, but the rape suggests it had broken down.

Empathy – identifying with the paratroopers in that barrack room – can help us to understand this uncomfortable culture and expose the recruits’ vulnerabilities: the unforgiving harshness of some of their early lives, the intense codes of an elite club where loyalty was prized above all and the ways training forged their identities.

Understanding this does not exonerate their crime nor suggest more sympathy with them than with their victim. Rather, it should enable us to reach deeply into the conditions of the past and the foundations of their violence. Understanding the particularities of 1970s society and regiment life can show how much has since changed. Opening a wider lens onto the settings of this crime can suggest how those things could change still further.

The concept that history is something distant is a dangerous one

Hallie Rubenhold, author of The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper (Doubleday, 2019)

A certain level of emotional detachment is necessary when examining any historical subject. No historian wants to be accused of failing to apply a critical eye and making hasty, inappropriate judgements. But it’s also possible that complete dispassion can prevent us from recognising the subtler human issues at play. In most cases, it’s the smaller human stories that influence the larger trends: the personal frustrations and private sufferings, often of people who have been written out of the record, that bring down governments, or initiate sweeping social and political change.

Too much emotional detachment from the people and events of the past presents a problem for wider society. The mistaken but prevalent concept that history is something distant, that it has no bearing on the present, is a dangerous one. As our cultural memory of what it means to live through war or times of extreme hardship diminishes, so too does our empathy for those who endured these trials. Eventually, our respect for them falls away as well. It becomes easy to mock a murder victim of 130 years ago or to regard Jack the Ripper not as a person, but as a legend on a par with fictional creations such as Dracula or Jekyll and Hyde. Their world and their problems seem too distant from our own to be real.

Although many are put off by history and its perceived dryness, they are quick to consume fiction with historical themes: books, films, box sets and video games. Epic sagas, such as Game of Thrones, or video games, such as Assassin’s Creed, appeal because they offer an emotional thrill and a connection with characters and situations. Fiction demands that its consumers feel empathy in order for it to work its magic; so too should history.

One of the things that history can teach us – perhaps its most valuable lesson – is that we can learn from our ancestors’ vulnerabilities, their foibles, jealousies, sense of hopelessness and pain. If we take these lessons to heart we have an opportunity to avoid repeating their missteps and insure that their mistakes were not made in vain.

Empathy can forge a connection with voices from the past

Miri Rubin, Professor of Medieval and Early Modern History at Queen Mary University of London

It is natural that we should feel empathy with some in the past and abhor the actions of others. I have not lost sympathy for those interrogated by the Inquisition on suspicion of heresy, as in Languedoc or Bavaria in the 1300s, nor has my disgust diminished at the actions of magistrates and judges in the witchcraft trials in Bamberg or Salem in the 1600s. It is a good thing that we feel for the tortured, the abused, the marginalised; victims who can be found both among the elite and the poor. Such empathy, after all, inspired the new histories of women, African-Americans, colonised people, working people, the sick and the disabled since the mid-20th century, leading to lasting changes in history and its possibilities.

A different type of understanding can – and should – guide us when thinking about perpetrators. Identifying the processes that lead to violence and cruelty is worthwhile historical work. How do ‘Ordinary Men’, as Christopher Browning so chillingly called them, become cruel perpetrators in Europe’s 20th-century ‘bloodlands’? How did a godly paterfamilias become the scourge of old women considered witches, as in Renfrewshire in 1697? Historical work should inquire into the social and emotional processes by which cruel and unusual acts become common, when political programmes encourage them. These could be acts of passion, such as the massacres in Jerusalem in July 1099 as ‘crusaders’ stormed the city, or projects of systematic violence, like the Holocaust.

As we engage with such enormities, we find we are not alone. It is a rare case of cruelty and violation that did not attract criticism in its time. When we research beyond official scripts, we often recover contemporary voices passing judgement on prevailing attitudes and actions: in criticism of the crusades by 12th-century monks, in Cotton Mather’s abhorrence of the Salem trials, in the outrage at the violence at Amritsar, in the abhorrence of Nazi atrocities by those speaking from exile, or by resisting heroes like Sophie Scholl. Passing judgement on past crimes and cruelty need not be anachronistic violation. It can forge a connection with voices from the past that sound so much like our better selves.

Hiding something unpleasant from view is less effective than exploring its implications

Patricia Fara, Emeritus Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge

How tempting it is to adopt a stance of intellectual and moral superiority towards the past. But, although human beings have accumulated vast numbers of facts, there is no guarantee that we have become more clever or more virtuous.

The stones and glasshouses argument is strong. What right do we have to judge our predecessors if, despite legislation, behaviour remains deplorable? When Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, child abuse had not yet been defined as a term let alone a crime. Now it is firmly on the statute books: but recent evidence suggests that perpetrators are still to be found throughout society.

Seeking to claim the moral high ground, protesters campaign to remove statues of imperialists or delete offensive books from student reading lists. Yet, hiding something unpleasant from view is less effective than exploring its implications; in any case, these are lazy ways of salving a sensitive conscience. Medical treatments offer a challenge to such historical sanitisers.

In 1885 the French chemist Louis Pasteur decided to test a new anti-rabies vaccine on a nine-year-old boy who had just been bitten by a demented dog. Although not a licensed doctor, Pasteur injected the victim 13 times with live virus. Luckily for both of them, the patient survived and, instead of being prosecuted, Pasteur was internationally acclaimed for his treatment.

Pasteur acted unethically, but should we refuse to drink pasteurised milk or decline a rabies shot before travelling? Similarly, perhaps women should deny themselves the convenience of taking contraceptive pills? Early trials were carried out on a small group of women in Puerto Rico, who were deliberately kept unaware of being experimental subjects. Three deaths were left uninvestigated and the survivors experienced severe side effects. At least the dosage was halved before being released in 1957 for what was effectively a mass test involving many thousands of unsuspecting purchasers, who suffered adverse reactions.

People have treated the world and its inhabitants badly – they still do. But the route to improvement lies through exposure and discussion, not concealment and denial.