A Europe Without Empathy

West has undergone de-civilisation. It is on show in the unfolding refugee crisis

Written by Ramin Jahanbegloo | Published: September 16, 2015 12:00 am
migrant crisis, europe, europe migrants, european union, european union migrants, syrian refugees, syria migrants, syrian refugees, europe refugees, refugees in europe, world news, indian express, editorials It goes without saying that violence and fear form the Gordian knot of the migration crisis, and they are integral to the moral transformation of Western society, which, while losing its founding values like compassion and civic friendship, shows strong signs of the fear of contamination and degradation via association with ‘inferior beings’ — the migrants. (AP Photo)

The unrelenting tide of desperate people fleeing war-torn homelands to find refuge and better opportunities in Europe confronts the European mind with a new moral issue. More than just being a political aberration, this massive influx of refugees raises a moral question about the nature of human civilisation in the second decade of the 21st century. Can the West still claim to be civilised when it has undergone a de-civilising process due to which it has turned into a highly complacent, conformist space of mind where fear, violence and mostly indifference dominate the everyday life of Westerners?

Given the tragic and inhumane evidence of the new migrations, we can no longer accept the idea of Western moral progress. As history shows us, the everyday meaning of “civilised” has come to imply the alleged moral superiority of the West vis-a-vis so-called “primitive” peoples, a notion widely used by colonising nations in the past to assert white supremacy. But whatever moral ascendancy the West once held has been lost in the refugee camps in Hungary and Australia, where people are treated worse than animals. As such, many Western countries, especially Hungary and Australia, could be criticised for the very “evil” they claim to be trying to prevent. If they truly want to save lives and find a solution to this human tragedy, they would do better to provide a best-practice model of humane and compassionate regulation that respects the need for protection for some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

At the same time, the ongoing tragedy of migrants entering through European borders also raises the general question of the process of “de-civilisation”. In his masterwork The Civilising Process, Norbert Elias describes this process as a long-term transformation of interpersonal relations and modes of behaviour that accompanies the formation of a unified state capable of monopolising physical violence and, thus, of progressively pacifying society.

However, the 2015 European migrant crisis can be interpreted in part as the product of a reversal of these trends. That is, as a process of de-civilising whose principal causes are to be found in the de-pacification of Western societies where urban violence is becoming more and more intense, in the privatisation of politics as the art of organising society accompanied by the slow erosion of the Western public space and, finally, in the social and political indifference among European and North American citizens as well as the rise of conformism as a general social attitude in the West. It goes without saying that violence and fear form the Gordian knot of the migration crisis, and they are integral to the moral transformation of Western society, which, while losing its founding values like compassion and civic friendship, shows strong signs of the fear of contamination and degradation via association with “inferior beings” — the migrants.

The shift from the classical idea of the communal ghetto to the mental ghetto may be presented dynamically in terms of the interaction of three elements. The first is the relativisation of moral values. Contemporary Western society is an increasingly loose domain where no particular moral or ethical position can actually be considered “right” or “wrong” and where there is a fairly wide sense of uncertainty. A second element entails the impossibility of meaningfulness in the public sphere and the rise of the privatisation of morality, which makes human beings insensitive and uncompassionate. Finally, the third element of de-civilisation that has attained its peak in the Western world is the erosion of the presence, reach and efficacy of public education.

At stake here, in the debate on education as a de-civilising process versus education as valued pedagogy, is the notion of critical thinking. The absence of a shared compassion and sense of urgency about the migrants suggests clearly the inability in Western societies to think differently. The hubris of Western democracies regarding the massive humanitarian disaster caused by the new refugee crisis lies in sticking to their “democratic values” and believing all will be well. But the self-congratulatory claims to universalism seem to have destroyed the sense of empathy in Europe and the rest of the West. The world of migrants’ suffering that Europe is witnessing is as remote from the present European mind as the farthest planet. It’s this uncompassionate remoteness that makes things even more tragic.

The writer is Noor-York Chair in Islamic Studies, York University, Toronto

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  1. Arvind Gopalaswamy
    Jan 27, 2017 at 3:59 am
    Lmao, do you guys believe Europeans have ever had any sort of moral superiority to the rest of humanity? I'd argue that they have always fallen at the bottom of the barrel in that regard throughout history. Perhaps I'll admit that some states in Europe are quite progressive and environmentally oriented nowadays, but they as a group have done depredations never seen or heard before in India (other than the ones committed by other foreigner rulers, especially Muslim). lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;What about the today's news where a Gambian man drowned before hundreds of tourists and not one bothered to save him? I''m pretty sure if this happened in my city, there would be atleast 10 people jumping into the water whether they're good swimmers or not. Never confuse wealth with humanity. Whether it's Europe or China, it appears those people's hearts are as cold as the air they breathe.
    1. R
      Sep 16, 2015 at 12:25 pm
      In Australia or Austria?
      1. I
        Ira G
        Sep 16, 2015 at 12:58 pm
        An interesting article but looking at things from my base in London I tend to disagree with some of the theories presented. I have seen and heard many people express empathy with the refugee/ migrant situation. Also many who would rather not share their living space with new migrants. This is no different to any nation in the globe where people feel threatened about sharing what they perceive to be limited resources and opportunities. There are also misgivings about Islamic migrants (whom many in Europe tend to lump in one category). This is because the imilation of earlier waves of Islamic migrants has not occurred everywhere. Some countries have been better than others - possibly due to inclusive and forward thinking policies. Most of Europe, particularly its large cities, still remain one of the most open-minded places. Could they do more to solve the crisis at their doorstep which at least partly has been created by them and their allies - most certainly yes. Would other large non-European countries have done the same in their place - who knows. As always it's easier to point fingers than take action.
        1. F
          Sep 16, 2015 at 11:12 pm
          What a stupid piece. Europe has taken in a million refugees. How many has India taken in? Oh that's right. India has closed borders and hasn't taken any. Nor have the 7 wealthiest Muslim nations. Not even one. They also have closed borders. Is that because they've become decivilized? Do tell us. We'd love to hear. And what about Syria? Are Syrians decivilized since they have killed 300,000 of their own people?
          1. Z
            Sep 16, 2015 at 5:07 am
            How many people can Europe take in? They have taken some. Why doesn't Saudi Arabia take the other refugees? These people are part of the Islamic civilization.
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