It’s Easy To Kill A Monster: The Empathy Problem

Storytelling and fear make for a dangerous combination. Fear is a powerful emotion that is only further ignited when interwoven into a narrative. When you combine fear and narrative, you get something called a horror movie. Usually in horror films there is a monster or some evil force that is on the offense. There is a general feeling of fear towards this monster. There is an eeriness in the environment due to the uncertainty of the monster’s actions. Who might the monster’s next victim be? We look on in eager suspense, as the plot develops. Yet, there is a point in every horror movie that the audience longs for. Our hearts race until this particular event takes place. We can’t turn off the movie and fall asleep until this takes place. It’s the scene where the monster dies. We wait on the edge of our seats in suspense for the monster to be drained of his power. This is the great climax that finally resolves all of the rising action. Once the monster is defeated, and our popcorn is finished, we are able to turn off the light and rest. There are no tears shed for this monster and no one plans to attend his funeral. There is no sensitivity nor empathy towards the monster, because well….he is a monster. It’s easy to kill a monster. If the director writes the script well enough, you should have no sympathy for the monster whatsoever. Hollywood has mastered this tactic but many manipulative world leaders have done so also.

Fear & Narrative As Tools of Oppression

When fear intertwines itself with a race narrative, the results can be deadly. These type of narratives create distance between “them and us.” We learn who to fear and who to hate through storytelling. Oppression is orchestrated by the controlling of perceptions, narratives and power structures. Through the controlling of perceptions, narratives and power structures a society is managed. Its villains are identified. We know who the bad guys are. This is how the narrative is written by a society. Stories work and Adolf Hitler mastered the tactic of storytelling. Adolf Hitler was able to systematically kill 6 million Jewish people because he had a compelling story. With his mythology he first convinced Germany that the Jews were the cause of their economic distress. Through caricatures and political propaganda he created images of the Jews as being less than human.

They were the rodents of society. The Jewish man, he preached, was the reason that they could not feed their children or receive adequate health care. This story began to sell. The people of Germany bought it and began to live out the implications of a fear narrative. The German people had real fear about their well being and such fear easily turned into brutal hatred. As the people of Germany bought into the fear narrative many of them colluded with the government in it’s extermination of the Jews. Others were not so active in actually killing their Jewish neighbors, but instead passively turned a blind eye to this massive act of dehumanization. Germany’s monster was the Jew and it was easy to kill something that the people already feared.

America’s Monster Story

There are moments in US history, where African American males have been written into our story as the antagonist. The monster in our horror film has often had a particular skin tone. Through the media, the law and other various channels of mainstream influence a culture’s story is told. For centuries black men had no influence and were at the mercy of majority culture’s storytelling. And even with our modern advancements of scholarship, law, and business, some individuals and institutions have managed to still shape structures and perceptions that shed a negative light on minority men.

After slavery, most public projections of freed black men were of them being violent, dangerous, mean and hyper sexual. The image of the threatening black man came at the same time that black men began to gain more political freedom and ability to challenge white supremacy.

 

  • During the period of Reconstruction (1865-1877), newly freed Blacks began to obtain social, economic, and political rights with the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.

 

  • In the late 1870s Jim Crow laws were enforced to facilitate separation of the races and inequality towards Black Americans. Southern state legislatures, no longer controlled by carpetbaggers and freedmen, passed laws requiring the separation of whites from “persons of color” in public transportation and schools.

 

  • Enlightenment period scientists used fallacious biological and anthropological arguments to claim that blacks were more prone to violence and other aggressive behaviors.

 

  • The myth of the black savage spread throughout the American south during the reconstruction period and led to enforcement of lynching.

 

  • Tulsa Uprising May 31st to June 1st 1921- In Tulsa, Oklahoma, a young White woman accused a Black male of sexual assault and roughly 300 Black people were killed and more than 9,000 people were left homeless after White mobs destroyed the Greenwood community (Pickens, 2013)

 

Modern Monster Stories

 

Terence Crutcher was killed on September 16, 2016 in Tulsa, Oklahoma by Officer Betty Shelby. As Terence Crutcher walked towards his vehicle on September 16, 2016, Officer Betty Shelby trailed behind him with her weapon drawn to his back. Mr. Crutcher was a large African American  male who’s vehicle had stalled in the middle of the road. All of this activity was being recorded by a helicopter camera and dashcam. As the dispatcher commented on the activity going on below, these words were said: “He looks like a bad dude. With no understanding of Mr. Crutcher’s character, pedigree or background, the dehumanization process had begun. Based on his outer appearance alone, Crutcher was called a “bad dude.” Upon walking back to his vehicle he was shot and killed by officer Betty. My heart cringes as I write these words and visualize the image of Mr. Crutcher being gunned down on camera beside his vehicle. He was a father, husband and a human being made in the image of God. In the eyes of his pursuer he was a bad dude, a monster, a threat to society and deserving of being killed.  After this incident went to court, the usual verdict was given. Officer Shelby was acquitted. Her activity of shooting an unarmed man was not seen as criminalistic. She considered him to be a threat. As he was walking to his car on that day, she assumed that he could have acquired a weapon there. With his back turned to her, he posed a threat to her life. Her story was accepted as truth. The narrative won again.

The Empathy Factor

When a person or people group is dehumanized, their dignity and rights to justice are eroded. If their character is shaded well enough then we are more likely to justify any actions take upon them. Or furthermore, we are more likely to ignore their suffering. For this reason, I say that we should pause and question our assumptions about justice. We should judge our judgement. I believe that empathy is the proverbial need of the hour. In order for us to truly break out of the polarization that stands as the status quo of our day, we must challenge the false narratives that were created by oppressive systems. These story lines that have dehumanized black men have caused many of us to become numb to injustices towards black men. We have lost empathy towards black suffering. Some of us have never had empathy towards black suffering, because we have perceived black people as getting what they have deserved. We have seen protests and even awareness blogs such as this one as a nuisance. Why? Because it’s easy to kill a monster.