A Failure Of Empathy: The casual cruelty of Barbara Sumner-Burstyn's Facebook posting about the death of Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker offered swift corroboration of Dr Bruce Perry's claim that social media are diminishing our capacity for empathy.
ARE SOCIAL MEDIA making us crueller? Dr Bruce Perry, an American neuroscientist currently touring New Zealand, argues that the explosive growth of communications technology is diminishing our capacity for empathy. By undermining face-to-face relationships and weakening the intimate and ethical bonds that hold communities together, claims Dr Perry, social media are changing the way our brains work.
A challenging thesis, but Dr Perry’s disturbing ideas received almost instant corroboration. In an extraordinary outburst on Facebook, the New Zealand film-maker, Barbara Sumner-Burstyn, delivered the following, scathing, ‘testimonial’ to Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker, the young New Zealand soldier killed in action in Afghanistan on 19 August:
“Oh, so fallen soldier Jacinda Baker liked boxing and baking – did they forget she also liked invading countries we are not at war with, killing innocent people and had no moral compass. She 100 per cent does not deserve our respect for her flawed choices. We are not at war. We are helping America invade another country for their oil. No more than that.”
It is difficult to know where to begin with this thoroughly obnoxious piece of writing. Perhaps with Ms Sumner-Burstyn’s simple errors of fact.
Lance Corporal Baker did not invade Afghanistan, she was posted there as a serving member of the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) which was in Afghanistan at the behest of the New Zealand Government, which had agreed to supply the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) with a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamiyan province. The ISAF is in Afghanistan by virtue of a UN Security Council resolution authorising UN member states to aid the creation of an effective and democratic Afghan government.
Lance Corporal Baker, far from “killing innocent people” was a medic – duty bound to assist all those wounded in combat or injured by enemy munitions – regardless of status or nationality. When she was killed, Lance Corporal Baker was escorting an injured comrade to medical assistance. It is extremely difficult to reconcile these facts with Ms Sumner-Burstyn’s charge that Lance Corporal Baker “had no moral compass”.
Ms Sumner-Burstyn’s final claim: “We are helping America invade another country for their oil” is similarly false. Afghanistan possesses no oil fields worth expending US blood and treasure to secure. The Americans are there for only one reason. Because the Taliban Government of Afghanistan had offered safe haven to Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaida: the terrorists ultimately responsible for the murderous attacks of 11 September 2001.
Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker
Natural reticence, not to mention fear of instant retaliation, would almost certainly have prevented Ms Sumner-Burstyn from uttering such false and hurtful accusations in front of people who did not share completely her opinions on the Afghanistan conflict. The classical injunction De mortuis nil nisi bonum – Of the dead speak only good – invokes a simpler world in which people confronted one another face-to-face. By placing a computer screen between herself and the family, friends and comrades of Lance Corporal Baker, Ms Sumner-Burstyn lost the inhibitive effect of close human proximity. Without its protection she had nothing to shield her from the full emotional and practical consequences of her actions.
These followed with terrifying speed and intensity. Ms Sumner-Burstyn’s comments appeared on her Facebook Page on Friday, by Saturday a new Facebook Page – Sumner Burstyn Give Back Your NZ Passport! – had attracted more than 15,000 followers. By Sunday that number had grown to 20,000.
Reading the comments posted on this new page, Dr Perry would no doubt suffer an embarrassment of evidential riches for his diminishing-empathy thesis. If Ms Sumner-Burstyn’s comments were ignorant and insensitive, the response was nothing short of homicidal. The reactive firestorm’s flames leaped across the Pacific Ocean to Canada – where Ms Sumner-Burstyn is working – and she hurriedly took down her Facebook Page and changed her e-mail address.
Too late. On the Internet everything is recoverable – including screen-shots of Ms Sumner-Burstyn’s original comments. By Sunday, family members had been driven from their homes by the public fury. Threatened with rape and murder, Ms Sumner-Burstyn fears to return to New Zealand.
A recent photograph of Ms Sumner-Burstyn shows a middle-aged woman posed in front of a large book-case filled with academic literature. Studying her face, and reading about her many awards for documentary film-making – many of them on “progressive” themes – it is difficult to fathom how Ms Sumner-Burstyn could be capable of such casual cruelty. As a clearly gifted artist and feminist, it is extraordinary that she was so utterly unable to empathise with Lance Corporal Baker – the first female member of the NZDF to lose her life on active service.
By the same token, it is profoundly depressing to read the spittle-flecked responses of her detractors.
Lance Corporal Baker lost her life on a mission to re-build and heal a damaged province in a ravaged land. Her empathy merited a much more generous memorial.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 28 August 2012.