Vancouver
3 min

Empathy deficient

What the rioters and policy 5.45 opponents have in common


“Get the hell out of there!” my loved ones begged as I stood kitty-corner to the burning car, fascinated by the mob emerging around me.

Determined to watch, I slid my cellphone back into my pocket and stood my ground as the post-Canucks crowd swirled around me, congealing into a mob. The air crackled with their excitement as the fire raged and the ringleaders danced around it.

I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t exhilarating.

“They weren’t even angry. They were having fun,” University of BC sociologist Rima Wilkes told The Vancouver Sun two days later. “Many people seemed to treat the riot as entertainment. They were taking pictures of the fires and overturned police cars. If there had been a dead body, would they have shot a photo of that?”

I think many would have, yes. Even standing apart observing the mob, it was all too easy to get swept up in their energy and forget the human cost of destruction. It wasn’t until the next morning, when I toured the broken windows and heard a woman’s account of trying to defend her family’s restaurant from projectile-throwing vandals, that my feelings for others rushed back in.

Simon Baron-Cohen would call that a temporary erosion of empathy. In his book, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, he argues that it’s people’s willingness to see others as objects that explains their cruel behaviour.

Had the rioters seen their prey as people with feelings, they would not have trashed their belongings, stolen their property or sacrificed their well-being to satisfy their own desires.

Baron-Cohen says some people perpetually lack empathy, while others simply let it slide in certain situations. I know I have less capacity to consider other people’s feelings when I’m overtired or hungry, not to mention on the fringes of a mob, succumbing to their energy.

Do the instigators who came downtown allegedly armed with Molotov cocktails perpetually lack empathy? What about the people who chose to follow them in the heat of the moment? Were they temporarily willing to put all thoughts of others on hold to join the destructive party and revel in its seemingly consequence-free excitement?

Only 24 hours before the Stanley Cup riot I watched Burnaby’s school board trustees unanimously pass anti-homophobia policy, unswayed by the mobbish mentality of the policy’s opponents.

“In a perfect world we wouldn’t need laws, regulations and policies such as 5.45,” school board chair Larry Hayes said. “Until then, providing our district with the extra tools that will help build a safer and more caring environment is the least we can do.”

Though the policy’s opponents set nothing on fire in the weeks leading up to the vote, they repeatedly squared off against the students and their supporters, brandishing angry signs suggesting hidden agendas and reverse discrimination. Their legitimate if antagonistic expression bore little resemblance, of course, to a riot — except in its lack of empathy.

Like the Stanley Cup rioters, the 5.45 opponents must have seen their targets as objects rather than people, otherwise how could they sustain their antipathy toward students just wanting to feel safe and valued? Even righteous anger tends to dissipate when the subject regains human form.

The vote cast, I watched the founder of Burnaby Parents Gay-Straight Alliance reach out to one of the most vocal opponents of 5.45. Let’s bridge the gap between our groups instead of yelling at each other, Chris Hitchcock suggested, and Charter Lau agreed.

Let’s talk about our faiths, Hitchcock continued, seeking to reopen the circle, to reestablish human contact.

Not just about faith — “culture is the bigger thing than faith,” Lau replied, promising to keep in touch.

Afterward I asked Hitchcock why she reached out. She’s interested in the tensions between being multicultural and respecting the values of immigrants — and she’s uncomfortable with “us versus them.”

“The divisive stuff really bothers me,” she says, “and the other-ing. I’d prefer us-ing.”

Tomorrow when we watch the Canucks game, Lau assured Hitchcock before he left, “we’ll be not two groups divided, but one group.”

Let’s hope Lau and his peers opt for more empathy now than the rioters did on June 15.