Woolwich, 2013

Does my empathy research have anything to say about the men who slaughtered another man with their bare hands in broad daylight on a London street?

Empathy is about trying to understand how other people feel and think. The act of violence in Woolwich is to be condemned, utterly. The task then is to move beyond condemnation and horror to empathic understanding, that condemns the violence but also tries to understand why it happened. For a brilliant blog post that seems better able than me to move on from horror at this time, I point you to Russell Brand


Meanwhile, what I have to offer from my research is some analysis of how people reacted after the London bombings in 2005. * That showed how people thought about the young men who carried out the suicide bombings, and how they were dealing with the shock.

We carry about with us a ‘view of the world’ – how our world works, and our lives fit into it; what’s right and what’s wrong; what’s good and what’s bad. Violent acts disturb that equilibrium, throwing our comfortable accepted ideas into disarray.

Two of the ways that people responded to 2005 were by ‘lumping’ and ‘splitting’.

Lumping is talking and thinking about a whole collection of individuals together under a single label, obliterating any differences. After 2005, that tended to be something like, “all Muslims are terrorists”. Lumping is easy but dangerous for a society – by blotting out what makes people individuals, it allows simplistic statements and judgements, and can support violent responses against a whole group. Lumping allows an escape from asking difficult questions.

Splitting is one way that people in our focus groups escaped from lumping. Splitting makes a distinction that, put baldly, separates ‘goodies’ from ‘baddies’, and thus restores some equilibrium to shocked minds. Rather than lumping, the group is split into “normal Muslims” who “don’t do this kind of thing” and those who were “brainwashed / crazy / mad”. Splitting allows us to continue to relate to the ‘good’ group, while condemning the ‘bad’. The danger is that it also leads to premature lumping – we can resume relations with the ‘good’ group and lump the other as ‘bad’ without trying to understand what happened.

Perhaps a useful step forward is becoming aware of our tendency to lump and split, and how these strategies let us avoid the difficult task of rebuilding empathy.



*  Cameron, L., Maslen, R., & Z. Todd. (2013) Dialogic construction of Self and Other in response to terrorism. Journal of Peace & Conflict. 19 (1), 3 – 22.

One Response to “Woolwich, 2013”
  1. eduardourios says:

    This is a very interesting topic. I think there is a little debate going on in this part of the world regarding the young people who set up two bombs in Boston. I find interesting especially the reaction towards the younger one. At least at the beginning he seemed to me manipulated and brought into something by a somehow overbearing and badly adapted older brother. There has been a lot of discussion about his looks, his total adaptation to the ways in the US. I have found the following articles on empathy that are kind of connected with this issue although perhaps you have already come across them. In any case, here is Paul Bloom’s views about how empathy is not so good and a response to his arguments: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2013/05/20/130520crat_atlarge_bloom
    I hope everything is going well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: