I used to have nightmares during internship. It was acute during the stint in Surgery. After those unending shifts in the emergency room. I have cried- not just metaphorically, but literally. Great heaving sobs in the tiny bathroom adjoining the casualty in Thrissur Medical College.
The wails, the groans of pain. Bodies being brought in with crushed skulls and brain pouring out. Live people with bloody mangled legs. Children- suffering….suffering. Sentient, human beings, like you or I, who can feel. People who can see the future- a future where they are crippled, helpless; – or where their dearests are no longer there.
But we get used to it quite soon. After a few years into this, I could tune out- almost. All these are just problems to be solved.
I could barely bring myself to read a book on the extermination attempt on the Jews by the Germans. I couldn’t even watch ‘Schindlers list’.
But after a few years, I could face a woman, screaming in agony in the ER, with her chest open and the heaving lungs inside, visible, and be detached and clinical about it. You have to be that way. Or you burn out in a few years and drop out of the profession, bitter and bruised. That can happen, and there are many doctors who do this.
The coping mechanism, involves a few necessary moves. And the essential one is ‘dehumanisation’. For the duration of the treatment, or whenever you put on the role of healer. This is what leads health care workers refer to patients as ‘Bed 22’ or ‘Soft tissue sarcoma’ , instead of ‘Mr. Raveendran’ or ‘Ms. Ayisha’.
The real challenge is to maintain the empathy so needed in the profession. One has to switch it on and off, almost on an ‘as needed’ basis.
But the point I make, is that this ‘feeling other’s pain’ module can be switched off, under certain circumstances.
Social Psychologists have found that, in certain situations, it is very easy to do.
Functional MRI shows that it is a natural thing for humans to categorize people ‘different from them’ as objects, rather than people. It could be colour, facial features, deformities, or even, social status and attitudes.
Dehumanising the enemy is routine in wars.
Any sustained propaganda , terming a section of the populace as ‘pests’, ‘outsiders’, ‘dirty’, dangerous’, or ‘termites’, can have the desired effect. Fear of others can be evoked quite easily- possibly a relic of our past, riddled with a history of intertribal exterminations.
History shows that the process can be repeated ad nauseaum. In 1992 at Rwanda, there was a period of sustained state radio broadcasts terming the Tutsis as ‘Cockroaches’, “Dirty schemers’ and similar endearments. The bloodbath promptly began. The Hutus, with their superior numbers, could massacre Tustsies with impunity, and over a course of one year, murdered two million of them. Rapes and Torture were common. Neighbours turned on neighbours. Most of the killings were with knives and machetes.
The same sickening thing was re-enacted in Yogoslavia, this time Serbs massacring Bosnians.
In these situations, it is not that there is just suspension of empathy. There is actual relish and enjoyment in other human being’s suffering. It gives a kick. You are happy doing it.
“A single death is a tragedy, but a million deaths, merely a statistic”
Joseph Stalin (He would know. 50 million, is his score)
The Key narrative includes these themes:
- We have to fear ‘them’
- ‘They’ are irredeemably evil.
- ‘They’ deserve it.
- It is all for the greater good.
- A ‘greater world vision’ makes this necessary.
All these, I am afraid, are generally Bullshit. War may be necessary when we have no option. We have to defend our borders and look after internal security with no compromise. There is no doubt about that.
That doesn’t mean we should push those buttons that would unleash our worst primal instincts.
They are not a tactical weapon; period. (Jimmy Mathew)