The human capacity to empathise is among our most celebrated qualities – so it can be rather galling to think this purest of instincts might be infected with bias. Nevertheless, this is what psychologists tell us. We can suffer, apparently, from “compassion fatigue” – present in burnt-out care workers, but also at scale (Ukraine frets that, two years into a war with Russia, supporters in the west will reach compassion fatigue). We also suffer from “compassion fade”: as the number in need increases, tragedies dissolve into statistics.
Both biases have an element of paradox – we are withdrawing sympathy as the need for it increases. But I wonder if there is also a third sort of paradoxical bias lurking within our good intentions; call it “compassion status-bias”. It is among our most ancient instincts to observe, suck up to and imitate people a few rungs up on the ladder – witness the dynamics of any office, the pages of any magazine – but I reckon we also fling a great deal of excess sympathy up there as well.
Take, for example, the outpouring of compassion over the admittedly sad and shocking news that King Charles has been diagnosed with cancer. The king, who has dedicated his life to public service, very much deserves our sympathy, as well as our respect for sharing his diagnosis in the first place. He did so that, he said, “it may assist public understanding for all those around the world who are affected by cancer”.
But it’s difficult not to compare and contrast the attention given to the plight of this one, high-status person, who has apparently received sackfuls of condolence messages, with the predicament of other cancer victims, who are facing “potentially deadly delays” in the NHS. Thousands are having to wait more than the maximum recommended 62 days to start treatment. People will die as a result.
“While I wish King Charles the very best with his treatment… please spare a thought for those who were not so fortunate with the speed of the response to their diagnoses. My husband was informed he had a potentially cancerous tumour in July 2023. He received his first chemotherapy session in December 2023 – 142 days after the initial diagnosis. He died in January,” one Guardian reader wrote.
But of course those sorts of stories are common: the NHS at breaking point, endless waiting lists, people dying as a consequence. They are familiar territory. Charles’s story is new. When something bad happens to an otherwise lucky and privileged person, the novelty makes it freshly shocking. We grasp the full horror immediately. We long to put it right.
I was struck by a similar observation when watching news coverage of refugees fleeing Ukraine in 2022. Again and again, the footage that elicited the largest exclamations of sympathy from commentators and news anchors was that showing otherwise fortunate people, with good jobs and nice houses, suddenly being reduced to the status of a refugee. These were the images that “brought it home”.
“Looking at them, the way they are dressed, these are prosperous… I’m loth to use the expression… middle-class people. These are not obviously refugees,” one Al Jazeera anchor put it.
“They seem so like us,” Daniel Hannan wrote in the Telegraph. “That is what makes it so shocking. Ukraine is a European country. Its people watch Netflix and have Instagram accounts, vote in free elections and read uncensored newspapers. War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations.” Many noticed that there were racist elements to the coverage. But class and status were involved, I think, too: when it came to low status, or unlucky, Ukrainians the tone was somewhat different; less urgent, less indignant. I think here of Ukraine’s commercial surrogates, a group that, poor and at risk, was initially ignored, as hearts went out from every country to the wealthy commissioning couples desperately wanting to “bring their babies home”. The surrogates were already unlucky: extra calumny was expected. But the idea that war could affect the lives of rich western couples was shocking.
It comes down to this, I think. There are certain groups we are used to seeing suffer. And at some point, the suffering becomes normal. The prosperous middle-class person turned refugee eventually becomes just another refugee. As bad luck is heaped on bad luck, a paradox occurs: our sympathies decrease. Our compassion is reserved for those we do not expect to fall upon hard times. It is only then that the injustice really strikes us.
This is perhaps most obvious when it comes to the justice system itself. The philosopher Kate Manne coined the term “himpathy” to describe the disproportionate sympathy given to high-status men accused of misogyny or sexual violence. We put ourselves in their shoes, worrying about their dented prospects, and forget their lower-status victims. Rich shoplifters, meanwhile, are still diagnosed with “kleptomania” while poorer ones are dealt with rather differently. And there remains a long-running argument that the way to stop MPs fiddling their expenses or taking dodgy second jobs is to increase their pay. Would the ordinary employee receive such compassion?
If a bias exists, it’s probably because it is useful, in some evolutionary sense. If you direct your compassion towards higher status people, they are better placed to return the favour.
But that doesn’t make it right.
Martha Gill is an Observer columnist
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