Time, Distance, and Invisibility: Factors that Limit Widespread Human Compassion
Time in the ancient world has done the same things to human empathy as physical distance does in the present; separation by time and separation by geography make any suffering and death irrelevant if not immediately at our fore.
Who really cares for those who died by the tens of millions killed by the Mongol empire and its aftereffects between the 13th and 15th centuries? Who but the most insincere and unknowing of ourselves has actually said they shed a single tear for any of those slaughtered and starved? Such a virtue is not really accessible to any but the dedicated scholar reading personal stories of the suffering of those ages. And still, I have heard those scholars say that the benefits brought to the world by Genghis Khan — freedom of religion, rights for women, early mail delivery networks, and free trade — were more significant than those of all spiritual leaders. Very, very few in the modern age can legitimately shed a tear for those millions of deaths, and no one can have an emotive response in favor of the civilizations at that time that were literally destroyed so completely that they don’t have a single entry in the book of history.
With an increasing distance in time from the event, we care less and less. But there are caveats. Fast-forward to the European-American massacres of the Native Americans, and things become quite different. We have photographic evidence of those great sadnesses, and so we become more in league with those dead. The same is true for the American slave trade and the photographic evidence we still have of such oppression and suffering. This visibility and our feelings of “kinship” with those whose plight we can SEE is even more evident than the violent drone wars of the current era in far-flung countries that have taken place behind our back … hidden under the smoke and behind the mirrors of modern news.
Time and distance from human suffering matter to our sympathy in tandem with our ability to see the effects … and not necessarily even then, like the aforementioned scholars espousing the net global good accomplished by the Mongols’ widespread destruction. With close to eight billion people on the planet, only a supernatural Messianic figure could possibly sympathize with every single life that has existed or does exist on the planet. This is not a possibility for mere mortals such as ourselves. We can only think broadly of the world and its inhabitants, and that is why when the prayerful pray for the world, they generally do so in the aggregate, as it would take seeing one new face, every second of every minute, every hour, every day, every month, and every year — without sleep — for two-hundred and fifty years to get a glimpse of what the eight billion individuals currently on the planet even look like.
Historians mourn the loss of the Library of Alexandria far more than the individuals who died in any sacking of any major city or nation of the ancient world. Indeed, the destruction of the Library of Alexandria is considered one of the worst crimes ever committed against humanity, perhaps because while the death of humans is inevitable, physically recorded knowledge has the potential to last for thousands of years to help humanity beyond many average lifetimes.
When the Taliban in Afghanistan destroyed the 125' and 180' Buddha statues of Bimiyan — built in the sixth and seventh centuries AD — in 2001, the international outcry was loud and far surpassed the public outrage over the human deaths occurring in that part of the world at the time.
We are a strange species that places values on things that are able to be seen. Visual human stories of pain and suffering are the most effective in counteracting the nullifying effects on human sympathy and empathy by way of distance in both time and geography. In essence, visibility of ancient wrongs and visibility of modern-day but far-flung human suffering are the most effective ways of enhancing compassionate kinship with all humankind … unless the logic of the net good overwhelms the sensibilities of the gross pain inherent in the human condition.
It seems the most effective method for focusing on the plight of those who suffered and suffer in the past and current eras — respectively — is to focus on the destruction of historical places and cultural symbols of widespread renown, as opposed to the destruction of the humans themselves.