Writing

A Mile In Your Moccasins

By Warwick Cairns

There’s an old Red Indian saying.

I know, I know.

But the ‘American’ part of ‘Native American’ – well, that takes you back to Amerigo Vespucci, doesn’t it? Amerigo Vespucci was the Italian explorer who, along with his chum Christopher Columbus, could be said to have kicked the whole thing off, that whole ‘Europeans conquer the New World’ thing.

Where do you start with this correct terminology thing, and where do you stop?

But as I was saying: there’s an old Red Indian saying.

Or is there?

I mean, there is a saying that I’m thinking of, but whether it’s really old, and whether it really originated where it’s meant to have done, well, that’s a whole other question.

It’s a bit like the ‘Old African Saying’ you hear quoted every now and then.

You know the one: “It takes a village to raise a child.”

Big place, Africa.

No-one seems to be able to be any more precise about it than that.

Anyway, the saying I have in mind on this particular occasion is this:

“Never criticise a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins.”

You can sort of tell it’s meant to be from the Wild West, can’t you?

It has the word ‘moccasins’ in it, see? If it had been from somewhere else –  Ancient Rome, say – it would have had something like ‘gladiator sandals’ in it. It probably would have had miles in it too, being as how the mile is a Roman measure. But I’d have imagined that the Red Indians would have come up with some other measure of distance. Something buffalo-related, perhaps.

I think, sometimes, people like having that sort of provenance to their proverbs. Sort of noble and wise, yet unsullied by the sophistry of progress and still in touch with the earth and the fundamental truths of life.

You can imagine the venerable old chief, sitting there in his fringed buckskins and his feathered war-bonnet, sucking slowly at his pipe as he considers his next words, the medicine-man at his shoulder, doing things with a bag of bones, while all the tribe sit cross-legged before him, waiting rapt.

And then he speaks.

“Never criticise a man,” he says.

And you cannot help but listen.

You cannot help but listen, even as the young braves come cup-handed, bringing smouldering leaves to the pile of wood heaped beneath the timber frame from which you hang suspended by your ankles. Even as the young women gather up their pointed sticks.

You cannot help but listen, even though you don’t even speak their bloody language.

But how wise, you think, nevertheless: how very, very wise.

I suppose where this is all leading to, this walking a mile in another man’s moccasins, is the importance of empathy. The ability to understand – and share – the feelings of another.

I would say that it’s one of the things that makes us human, except that it isn’t, really.

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You can have empathy and not be human.

And you can be human and not have empathy.

Dogs, for example.

One of the few species, they are, who ‘catch’ yawning from seeing people yawn.

And it’s not just a matter of seeing a mouth opening and copying – if the researchers at the University of Tokyo are to be believed. What they found – what they published in their report this past couple of months – is that dogs, humankind’s oldest animal companion, catch yawns from people in a way that shows empathy between the species. Which is to say, they respond more to real yawns than to fake ones, and they respond more to their owner’s yawns than to the yawns of a stranger.

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Porto in Portugal have found that dogs’ stress hormone levels rise and fall in direct relation to their owners’.

Empathy, you see.

Non-humans with empathy.

And meanwhile. Meanwhile, back in the human world, you have psychopaths. Now, it used to be thought that psychopaths had no empathy at all, being as how they’re such unfeeling, self-centred bastards and all. They were thought to have no empathy whatever kind of psychopath they might be – whether the mad axe-wielding serial-killer variety or else the more common manipulative, self-serving sociopath kind that many people rightly or wrongly believe their bosses to be.

Rightly, most probably.

According to studies, there are, proportionately, four times more psychopaths in the boardrooms and management suites of big businesses than there are in society as a whole. Psychopaths know how to get ahead in business, you see.

But here’s the thing – it used to be thought that psychopaths had no empathy at all. Now, however, it turns out that they do – but just as an optional extra.

Again, just this past couple of months, at around the time the dog-yawning study went to press, researchers at the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands, were publishing their report on psychopaths and how they feel. And it’s not quite how we thought they felt.

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According to Christian Keysers, the author of the Dutch report, “The predominant notion had been that they are callous individuals, unable to feel emotions themselves and therefore unable to feel emotions in others. Our work shows it’s not that simple. They don’t lack empathy but they have a switch to turn it on and off. By default, it seems to be off.”

That must be nice for them, the psychopaths.

I mean, if you have no insight into how others feel, then you’d wonder why you’d go to all the trouble of doing something really bonkers – I don’t know, building an underground torture-chamber in your basement and kidnapping people off of the street to do unspeakable things to. Because if you did that, and if you had no sense of the effects of it on your victims, no appreciation of it – well, you’d be bound to question whether it was worth all the effort of doing it. Maybe you’d take up a less demanding hobby instead.

Whereas it turns out that they can feel what others feel, after all.

But only when they want to.

There is a link, I think, between empathy and cruelty.

There was an interview I read a while back with what you might call a ‘champion’ torturer from Cambodia, or somewhere like that. I don’t know if there was an actual championship, or any sort of award for it, but he was one of the best, if there is such a thing – if not the very best. He was much in demand for his skills, and frequently called upon to do the honours whenever a local paramilitary thug needed to be particularly beastly to someone.

What he said was this: he said that he hadn’t always been good at it. He’d actually started out being quite a rubbish torturer. It wasn’t that he didn’t hurt people enough – quite the reverse, in fact. He beat some people senseless, and beat others to death. Blood everywhere. But he was crude, you see. He had no style, no panache. He was a long way from being the respected figure in the torturing community that he later came to be. But then, he said, gradually and with practice, he began to get a feel for his trade. He learned to vary the pace and severity. He learned to watch the signs and cues given out by his victims, rather than bludgeoning blindly ahead. He learned when to offer small mercies like a glass of cold water to drink; and when, suddenly, to snatch those small mercies away – the water flung in the face, the glass smashed and… well, we’ll draw a veil over that.

But what he did was more than just a technical thing. It was an emotional one. He learnt to establish a bond of empathy with his victims, and this made his skill as a torturer all the more terrible. Because of this bond he was able to see inside them and sense exactly what they were feeling; and because of this he was able to devise ever more cruel and subtle refinements.

Writers do the same. In tragedy and in comedy, from Macbeth to Alan Partridge, they allow you insight into a character’s inner world – and at the same time they heap misfortune and embarrassment upon him – deserved or otherwise. And you feel for him, while at the same time relishing the feeling.

The bond of empathy is a knife that cuts two ways.

Which sounds rather like it ought to be some kind of old Red Indian saying.

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Beat Ed

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