Nobody is paying attention...
"How could I have been so blind?"
Written by Darren Allen.
He who does not know truth at sight is unworthy of her notice.
— William Blake
How do they get away with it? How, for example, did Jimmy Savile, the extremely famous British light-entertainer, celebrated philanthropist—raising tens of millions for charities—and ‘national treasure’, rarely off our prime-time screens for long, friend of the royal family, of the prime minister and of countless celebrities, knighted by both Queen and Pope; how did this monster, over fifty years of his ‘distinguished career’, manage to rape and molest hundreds, possibly thousands, of young girls, some pre-pubescent, along with patients of the many hospitals he had, as a patron, free access to?
What is astonishing about Savile is not what he got up to, which is just revolting and hardly worth thinking about, nor the reason why people became so interested in his crimes, which is the usual shoddy need for emotional excitation, but how famous he was when he was alive. He was, after all, a man without the slightest human feeling. If you watch him speak, his face never displays the faintest nuance of interiority. He spoke like a machine, rat-tat-tatting his catchphrases out like an impression of a machine-gun; because, as an aide said of him, he was a machine. This is why he treated human beings as objects, without an inner life of their own. He is on camera describing girls as ‘it’, which is how he thought of other people, indeed of existence itself, as a thing from which one must extract as much pleasure as possible before death (his gravestone, while it lasted, was inscribed according to his wishes with ‘it was fun while it lasted’). And yet, despite all this, he was adored, from the very bottom to the very top of society. Millions of people loved him, or at the very least saw nothing suspicious about him, just as they didn’t when, for example, Tony Blair—a man directly responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths—was elected (or Hitler for that matter, or Mussolini, both of whom had broad popular support).
Yes, but, you might be thinking, it’s easy to be fooled with slebs. They only exist for us on the screen. Savile’s fans didn’t really know him, they just saw him mugging on Top of the Pops. We all make mistakes with people who come to us filtered through the spectacle because there’s so little to go on, just the image they want to present to the world. Actually, it’s not a very difficult job to see through even virtual presentations of the self, but it’s easier with people in the flesh, isn’t it? Apparently not. People make the same mistakes with their ‘real’ friends as they do with their virtual ‘contacts’, trusting the untrustworthy, marrying fiends and ending up thinking to themselves, again and again, ‘how could I have been so blind?’
How can people be so blind? The answer is very, very simple; nobody, or almost nobody, is paying attention. Nobody is really conscious of the other, by which I mean the number of those among us who have real empathy, the actual ability to see other people (or animals, or even things) from within, is staggeringly, not to mention depressingly, small. The vast majority simply do not look at or listen to each other as a quality event, as an experience of character which, through sacrificing one’s opinions and feelings, one has inner access to. Instead, people greet each other as a collection of attributes; job, opinions, attractiveness, age, sex, dress, nationality, sociability, conformity, agreeableness and what not, which are then assessed much as we would a business opportunity.
What people see in others is either what they can get out of them—which is why the rich, the influential and the sexually attractive can fool others so easily. This girl is friendly, coy and sexually active (approved: sex possible), that young man is poor, taciturn, unapproachable and has a nervous laugh (rejected: nothing to gain here), this old, white man has insulting opinions about groups that I am sympathetic to and seems to always be in a bad mood (rejected: active threat) although he’s the boss of the company I work for (warning! hide rejection: could lose job), that woman appears to be just like every other fifty-year old mother (provisionally approved: neither here nor there) until I discover she knows someone who could help me get my book published (fully approved; turn on charm), and so on. We sift through a market-place of contacts like we do an online clothes shop.
‘Contact’ is a telling word, isn’t it? It’s like ‘based’—as in ‘where are you based’? The other is not a mysterious quality-event who I can, through sensate, contextual communion, actually experience, through analogue time. No, they are a contact, a Cartesian point in abstract space, which I only become aware of if I collide with it; then I press my assessing mind up against it in the same way I situate it on the provisional dot I happen to be ‘based’ at. If one of these serial nodes floating through the video game in my mind I call ‘reality’ might be able to do something for me, then I put them in my ‘list of contacts’. They might come in useful.
The result of this almost universal utilitarian modus vivendi is a chronic, endemic and widespread lack of discernment. Nobody has got the slightest idea of what anyone (or anything) else is. If you think I am exaggerating, consider Sir Jimmy Savile again. Certainly, as they say ‘the warning signs were there’. Plenty of people who do have a functioning empathic core—mostly women, of course—found him as creepy as all hell, particularly as he got older and his inner life manifested on his repulsive face (around 40 or 50 is usually when warning bells start ringing with dark characters, because they can no longer hide behind their smooth youthful faces). But most saw nothing wrong with him, from the start of his fifty-year career to the very end. He was a charming eccentric, an ‘entertainer’, and, like so many who cannot really give, a man of charity.
Again, not that you need to go all the way down to hell to grasp this. Just take a look around you. How much, or how well, are people really paying attention to each other? Feeling each other out from within, not as some kind of skin-crawlingly intense assessment, but with the kind of soft attention that humans naturally give to that which they love? Think of a sommelier dropping his self away in order to dissolve his attention into a glass of wine, or an expert tailor empathically engaging himself with the feel of a cloth, or a great actor giving herself to the scene. If such examples of craft mastery are rare in our world—and they certainly are—it speaks for how estranged we are not just from the things we work with but the people we live with. We are no longer connoisseurs of men. We order and handle them as we do cheap Chinese goods.
This is because we don’t have to experience each other. Being able to sense out the living character of other people is as useless, even as dangerous, as being able to detect the inner quality of objects. You don’t live with your plumber or the girl who scanned your shopping or the countless wraiths you pass in the river of scorn we call ‘the high street’; you’ll never have to see them again after today, so what’s the value in really knowing them? It confers no advantage, quite the reverse; you might have to care about them! An urban dweller can encounter hundreds of such people a day, thousands, who mean nothing, have no context to them, no background. It’s painful looking deeper than the surface—numbed boredom is the best you’re likely to find down there, seething misery not uncommon—and there’s no purpose to it. So don’t bother, wrap yourself up in your own thoughts and feelings and pass through the world as if cocooned in a Roman tortoise.
Conversing with the empathically muffled mass-man is at best difficult and boring, very often, particularly when some point of contention inevitably arises, it is a very special agony. When threatened, the unempathic have two basic modes, one, favoured by the male of the species, is to reduce your entire being and meaning down to an idea, related to other ideas, which can be easily swept aside, the other, a little more popular amongst women, is to attack your feelings, either with words, or with tone, gesture and other unspoken weapons. In both cases you find the experience is extremely painful which, first of all, makes it difficult to remain present, much less sound like you’re not in pain, but, far worse, that actually poisons you. It can take hours to rid yourself of the toxic bile of a human imprisoned in his or her self.
Few have the courage to emerge from this shell, to let themselves go. It feels like death. But also, there’s just no purpose to the selfless experience, to experiencing the quality of the other; which is why it is so threatening to the cult of utility we call ‘the world’. The reason that the system has to rely on tests, facts, proofs, degrees, certificates, graphs and spreadsheets to make its decision is not just because it is as inherently undiscerning as the ‘result-driven’ minds which run it, but because it is a data-crunching, quantitative mechanism. It has to assess the other as a thing comprising discrete features which are processed to produce manageable outputs. Quality and character and tender sense, with the moral imperative that empathic quality leads to, just get in the way. Quality is just too slow, too strange and has a nasty tendency to make ethical objections to perfectly logical decisions.
It also cannot be proved. During Savile’s lifetime there were two police investigations and numerous allegations were made about him, all of which were dropped or left unpursued; because there ‘was no evidence’. You can’t hide the character of your face, gestures, tone of voice and style, you expose your heart, or lack of it, to all who are selfless enough to perceive character; but in a mechanical world it doesn’t matter, because rational, factual evidence of wrongdoing is all that counts, and that is very easy to conceal. This is how thieves, murderers and fakes can deceive others, and continue to deceive them, until the crime no longer really matters. It’s old news now, so we can let the evidence emerge. The empathic and the aware knew all along, but they’re no threat now.
The unempathic and unaware, the vast, vast majority, can expect to be continually deceived. Again and again they’ll be amazed; ‘but he seemed so normal!’ ‘She seemed so nice!’ As they get older they find, without the capacity to discern good from bad, that they are deceived over and over and over again. They learn to be cynical, to assume that everyone actually is really on the make, and that it’s only a matter of time before they show their true colours. The weight of this negativity is immense, so they relieve it with sentimentality, worshipping an idealised, idolised good possessed by those too far away in space and time to ever threaten the image. This is the role that, for many, God plays, or The Prophet. Others worship animals, or Mr. Rogers, or Samwise Gamgee, or my dear, dear mummy.
We are born empathic—five-week old babies are the most discerning beings on the planet—but, like genius and love, empathy is also, albeit secondarily, a skill which must be acquired. Empathy is a selfless state which, upon ‘entry’ into a developing self finds itself prey to the shocks, flaws and temptations of the flesh. This is why it would be monstrous to suggest that the young girls Savile lured into his ambit with the promise of meeting ‘the stars’ were in any way guilty. They all felt repulsed by him, but they didn’t have the experience to understand their feelings or the motives of the man who induced them. Those with experience had no such excuse.
Thus empathy—gut instinct, intuition, call it what you will—is something which must be both discovered and rediscovered. One must be present, humble enough to let go of what one wants from the situation, or thinks about it, in order to sense as babies do, while, at the same time, one must make nature and human nature the object of one’s study, to learn about people. But here non-fiction runs out of power and my essay has very little to say. Here, we must turn to the play and to the novel and to the parable and to the myth.
Darren Allen writes radical philosophy and outsider literature. He is the author of many books. You can find his non-fiction on his Substack, called Expressive Egg.
people greet each other as a collection of attributes; job, opinions, attractiveness, age, sex, dress, nationality, sociability, conformity, agreeableness and what not, which are then assessed much as we would a business opportunity
Because all living beings have to maintain homeostasis -- i.e. an internal state within relatively narrow parameters --, such an attitude is rational. To the extent empathy advances one's goal of keeping alive & promotes reproduction, it is an useful trait. But the amount of empathy one practices itself is subject to limits: unreasonable amounts of empathy predisposes one to become victim of conmen, thereby lowering one's own biological fitness. An example is when people donate to false claimants of suffering from cancer (or other deadly disease).
Discernment is indeed important -- including the capability to discern where empathy is counterproductive. Psychopaths (intraspecies predators) often demand empathy from their marks; undiscerning acquiescence to such demands leads to psychic & material losses for the indiscriminately empathetic. Excessive amounts of empathy is just as destructive as anything else: even clean water can kill someone if too much of it is consumed in too short period of time.