Why is an abused dog apparently easier to sympathize with than an abused human being?
The worst thing about it all was the judgment. Even from family.
No one could really understand how I’d let her do it. And then, I was literally frightened to go out with a woman again for ages, but people just thought that was weird. So I didn’t talk about it.
That’s a friend of mine speaking about his past experience of moving on from a violent relationship.
Someone else I know, currently still recovering from a violent relationship, was upset by an insensitive email from her former boss:
You’re definitely happier and more optimistic than a year ago and you are clearly busy but you don’t mention anything about men. Please don’t allow your experience and love of [name] to deny you other opportunities. I know that you are an intelligent, rational woman and will assess every situation with caution but it’s been some time now and it would do you good to embark on other relationships if only for the fun factor!
The writer of this email isn’t unkind though; and neither are the family of the first man. They are trying to help as best as they can.
They feel uncomfortable in the presence of visible emotional damage, and just want it to vanish.
The same woman, when in her twenties, once met and started dating an apparently kind guy. But having been severely abused all through her childhood, she was frightened, and wanted to take things very slowly, especially on the physical side. In the end he got fed up and gave her a solemn lecture before ending things:
I’m not trying to be nasty but it’s years since all that happened. You really should have got over it by now.
I thought about these two people when I saw this video the other day. It apparently shows a dog who has been abused, recoiling in terror and screaming when a human tries to pet it. It’s heartbreaking to the point of being almost unwatchable.
But one thing I noticed was that as you scroll down the comments, no one is judging the dog for being emotionally damaged. Plenty of people are judging and wishing evil on its abuser, which though questionable is outside the scope of this article. And a very few idiots seem to find the dog’s distress funny. But overall, it’s just a pure outpouring of love, outrage and grief for the state this animal has been reduced to.
People seem easily able to understand that it makes perfect sense for the dog to act in this dysfunctional way. They wouldn’t dream of saying that he shouldn’t behave like that, or should have got over it by now.
But aren’t the man, the woman and the dog in these three stories all the same in the end?
They’ve all been hurt by people who should have protected them. They’re all scared now when a new person shows signs of wanting to get close to them; and act out that fear in instinctive, potentially alienating ways.
So what’s the difference? Why is the dog just accepted as it is, and sympathized with, while the man and woman are judged for being damaged, and given well-meaning little lectures about the need to move on?
There could be so many answers to this.
The dog is seen as more innocent and undeserving of harm than the humans
Arluke and Levin tested people’s reactions to hearing of puppy, an adult dog, a human infant and a 30-year-old human being severely beaten with a baseball bat. They found that:
Infants, puppies and adult dogs all got greater sympathy than the 30-year-old human […] They cared more about creatures who were perceived as innocent and helpless […] Full-grown adults are more likely to be seen as capable of taking care of themselves.
Caring about a single abused animal can take away some of our own pain
Margo DeMello argues that getting upset over one abused animal is a convenient way to ease our consciences about the widespread animal cruelty that underpins our society:
It’s far easier to be outraged at the individual cases of cruelty than at the vast numbers of animal lives lost each year to human greed, vanity, or personal taste.
Karen Houle writes:
Many of us humans are sickened on some deep level by the current state of the world. It’s almost too much to bear, the shit we have a hand in, directly or indirectly.
The answer? Repress it. Do a little composting. Sign a petition for a donkey sanctuary.
Animals are easier and safer to be around, and won’t hurt us with their emotional complexity
As Kristoff sings to Sven in the Disney cartoon Frozen:
Reindeers are better than people
Sven, don’t you think that’s true?
Yeah, people will beat you
And curse you and cheat you
Every one of them’s bad except you.
The little dog’s distress is transparent, and relatively easy to heal.
The dog in the clip has been badly hurt; and when his fear is triggered, he expresses his pain in the most simple, direct way imaginable.
He just opens his mouth and screams.
Anyone can see what’s wrong with him, and what he needs in order to heal. And from the happy ending of this video, his recovery process is apparently pretty straightforward.
People don’t tend to express their pain in the same direct, artless way. A wounded person can’t just start screaming out loud every time a potential threat comes near them.
A human who has been abused might express their damage in different, complex ways:
- Exhibit distrust of others
- Exhibit emotional outbursts
- Have low self-esteem or confidence
- Cry easily, frequently
- Express feelings of hopelessness
- Want to die
- Abuse alcohol or other substances
- Be fearful of intimacy and touch
- Learn passive/aggressive behaviors
And so on . . . (Source: Disabled Persons Protection Commission)
These and other behaviors are not nice to put up with from the damaged person. As you will know if you’ve cared deeply for an abused person yourself, they can hurt you and make you feel bad; especially if you don’t really understand the cause, or are vulnerable yourself (and who isn’t?).
Judging others is easy; but empathy is hard work
Bill Bullard said,
Opinion is really the lowest form of human knowledge. It requires no accountability, no understanding. The highest form of knowledge […] is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another’s world. It requires profound purpose larger than the self kind of understanding.
Sympathizing with the wounded little dog in the YouTube clip is a loving, commendable and natural reaction. But in the end, it’s only passive entertainment (we play no role ourselves in promoting his recovery). It’s not work in the same way that really taking the time to empathize and engage with another human being can be.
Feeling a range of powerful emotions from outrage to distress to joy when we watch this video, instead of genuinely honing our ability to feel empathy and compassion in real life, may feel really satisfying.
But it’s comparable to what the samurai Adachi Masahiro called Practicing swimming in a dry field.
By this, he meant martial artists who practice in unrealistically safe settings, with swords made of bamboo covered with leather [and] think they are masters—but who are then completely unprepared for real battle.
It’s not risky.
It’s not real.
Properly caring for the wounded men and women among us can be hard and sometimes painful—again, you will know this if you’ve been there yourself. But it’s worth it, for ourselves as well as the ones we reach out to. We can grow as people by taking the time to understand each others’ wounds in all their complexity, rather than always going for the safe and easy options (giving well-meaning but trite and insensitive advice; or watching feel-good videos about wounded animals being healed).
As Carl Rogers says:
Really hearing someone […] is like listening to the music of the spheres, because beyond the immediate message of the person, no matter what that might be, there is the universal. Hidden in all of the personal communications which I really hear there seem to be orderly psychological laws, aspects of the same order we find in the universe as a whole. So there is both the satisfaction of hearing this person and also the satisfaction of feeling one’s self in touch with what is universally true.”
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Photo credit: Getty Images