Monday, January 17, 2011

How Sympathetic Do You Need to Appear?

ID (Investigative Discovery) sort of sucked me in yesterday. I find those forensic/true crime shows fascinating. I sometimes think I'd like to go into forensics, only I'm not sure I'd want to make a career out of it. I just think that getting to learn all of the science and play with dead bodies/pigs would be fun and interesting. Same thing for being a medical examiner. Playing with the bodies and such would be interesting. The rest, not so much. Meh.

Anyway. One of the shows I saw was about a girl who was taken back to her dorm from a party and later found raped, beaten and badly burned. She died in the hospital from her wounds and the police picked up one guy who admitted to having been in her dorm and having sex with her. His story kept changing and he accused this other guy he knew of having come in after him and raping the girl. So the police pick this other guy up, who has two incidents of domestic violence on his record and arrest him and eventually take it to trial. Even though all they have on this second guy is the firsts accusation - and the first guy eventually admits to raping the girl and setting her on fire, rigging her dorm room door so it wouldn't open quickly to delay people being able to get in and put the fire out. Real charmer, that. So all they have on this second guy is accusation - no fingerprints, no DNA, no video. They try to fool him into thinking that they have some of that and the guy is very certain that they don't have *his*. He tells them to take his DNA, take whatever they want. They won't find a trace of him in the dorm or on the girl because he wasn't there and he didn't do anything. Which turns out to be true.

But the one cop that was investigating the case, when they were interviewing him for this show kept talking about the second guy, saying: 'He had no sympathy for this girl. He wasn't horrified, nothing.' Well, okay. But here's the thing: it's hard to be horrified by terrible things that happen to people you don't know. It takes something massive like the shootings in Arizona or September 11th or the Oklahoma City bomb. Those are massive and terrifying and make us afraid and sympathetic by sheer force.

Do terrible things happen to individuals? All the time. But unless we're right there or we know them or we've survived something similar it is very hard to work up a show of horror and sympathy. Are we supposed to break down weeping every time we hear about a murder? Do you have any idea how many people die every day by one form of violence or another? Society would be unable to function if we felt things that didn't involve us too deeply. I watch these shows and know that the deaths there are real - these aren't made-up people getting killed in painful ways, but real people. These represent real lives. And I'm sorry that they died, really. It's unfortunate. But I'm not sitting there sobbing in sympathy. I'm fascinated - both by the science and the detective work that goes into catching the killers and by the things that drive people to kill.

So what should people do? If we don't feel sympathy should we fake it? I can do that. We do it all the time to one degree or another. But if you're being questioned by the police should your first thought be, 'oh, I should look sad now'. Or should you, if you're not actually prostrate with grief, try to keep level and answer their questions? How much of a show of sympathy does society require before it's acceptable and doesn't make people think you're up to something evil?


  1. Uh, this may seem awful, but I would be more concerned that I would be put away for something I did not commit. THAT emotion would override any sympathy I might normally feel for one who was raped and murdered. It's not that I would not feel bad for her, but the fact that *I* am being accused ...that would REALLY upset me when I knew I was being falsely accused and they were looking to pin a crime on me and the true murderer might go free!

  2. Yeah, people aren't that nice. It's survival instinct. I remember being horrified in early psychology and sociology classes where they explained similar things. If you ever get attacked, yell "fire" instead of "help", because no one is going to help you. They're too afraid. But they will run out if they think they're in danger. Everyone thinks it's not their problem and hopes someone else will do something, because they're afraid somehow to get involved themselves. So I'm much more confused at how someone in this line of work would be surprised at that sort of apathy than I am at the guy's reaction.

  3. i guess the second guy wasn't feeling any sympathy because of the trouble he was in. Yes he was sure that he didn't do anything bad but still he was in accusation and trials and so on...

    But on a personal level yes i am VERY sympathetic. I cry when i see people cry and in pain or misery. I keep thinking about those dead ones in such stories and the pain they had been into. I have been told that it's bad and could harm me or hurt me but i wont feeling sympathy, i guess that's what makes me who i am. But that doesn't mean that there is something wrong with those who don't feel sympathy for others all the time.

  4. Susanne,

    I don't think that's awful at all. I think that'd be what most other people are feeling. Unless you're close to the person, related, something like that, if you've been brought in by the police for questioning I think it's natural that your first concern is for yourself.

  5. sanil,

    Yep. I remember those lessons as well. I think of it sometimes as the 'Somebody Elses' Problem' effect. (Shush. I know I'm a nerd.) It's what allows people to hear beatings going on right next door and do nothing. It's what allows people to walk by someone dying in the street.

    I'm not sure if they cop was so surprised at his lack of reaction so much as he kept saying it like it was a reason for them to suspect the guy. Either way I think you're right. He should have been used to it if he'd been on the job very long. Maybe he was a rookie at the time?

  6. wafa,

    i guess the second guy wasn't feeling any sympathy because of the trouble he was in. Yes he was sure that he didn't do anything bad but still he was in accusation and trials and so on...

    I'm sure that was a part of it. After all it's an unfortunate truth that innocent people do sometimes go to prison for crimes they didn't commit. So concern for himself, especially given the fact that he did have a police record, was high on his list.

    *hugs you* You are a very unusual woman then my dear. I think the concern with people who feel for everyone all the time is that you can get burnt out or too wrapped up in someone elses' troubles and cause yourself grief that way. Heavy emotions can affect us physically as well.

    But you can't help being who you are and if that person is sympathetic and cries with everyone elses' pain then that's who you are. Nothing wrong with that either. :) Hey, shouldn't that mean that you feel other peoples' happiness as well? Do you?

  7. Aha, it happens too, i swear


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