It’s a new year, and with all these jokes about having 2020 vision I find myself thinking about how I would benefit from working on my own vision for 2020. Not that I need glasses, well, not yet at least, but I mean working on my mental 2020 vision, or more commonly called empathy. Empathy is a complex set of skills and abilities allowing a person to make accurate guesses about what other people know, don’t know, desire, loathe, and how they’re likely to react to specific news. Generally speaking, people are not bad at empathy, however, considering just how mentally taxing empathy can be, it is commonplace that we get things wrong when attempting to understand how other people think.
One thing I used to get wrong was that I used to assume everyone valued honesty as much I do. It seemed rather ridiculous to me that anyone would lie. Certainly, lie to teachers and bullies if you must, but why on Earth to anyone you work with, want to be friends with, or live with? I mean, it just never made good sense to me. If you want to get along with people, to live and work co-operatively together, then you should just tell the truth to each other. That way you can both plan your days, and indeed even your lives, to be as productive and stress free as possible. But as soon as someone starts lying or withholding information it becomes difficult, nigh impossible to plan even your day, much less your life with other people. With the wrong information, you will inevitably make the wrong decisions no matter how well organised you are.
But was it their failure to be honest or my failure to understand why they preferred to lie? Was I not standing in their proverbial shoes for sufficient mileage to appreciate where they were coming from?
One mental exercise that I have found useful in developing 2020 empathy vision is to try to imagine myself as a criminal. Criminals behave in very different ways to honest people: they lie, they distort accounts by emphasising trivial matters while ignoring important details, they aren’t afraid to hurt other people, and they see laws, civilisation, and society in a different perspective. They don’t think or feel like I do for the most part, and so trying to understand such different people to me can help me to explore a different way of looking at the world.
So what does it feel like to be a criminal? Well firstly, I need to understand a difference in how I think about the law versus how a criminal thinks about the law. For starters, I’m only going to talk about criminal law here. That is laws against breaking your word (contracts, fraud, impersonation, entrapment, libel, etc…) and laws against trespass (theft, armed robbery, breaking and entering, assault, murder, etc…). These are laws that matter to me, they’re laws that fit with my sense of justice. Laws that regulate businesses, prohibit types of speech, smoking, and traffic offenses, etc… don’t strike me as just. Sure, it would be good manners for most people to follow them, but that’s what they are: good advice, not the sort of thing that should be written into law.
So take a law that forbids breaking and entering. This law doesn’t bother me at all because I don’t have any impulses to break and enter into anyone’s house. It just doesn’t interest me. So a law saying I can’t break into my neighbour’s house doesn’t feel restrictive to me at all. I wasn’t going to do it anyway. Furthermore, I like knowing that this is a law because it tells me that the majority of people agree with me on this: breaking and entering into other people’s houses is not a good thing to do. Since most people will agree with me I feel safe that other people will support me if someone ever tries to break and enter into my house. So in the end, I have a rather positive view of such laws.
However, I am going to imagine that I’m a criminal, a criminal who breaks and enters into other people’s houses. I don’t know my motivations… maybe it is to steal money, maybe to harm the people inside, or maybe I just like doing it for the fun of it? Whatever my motivation would be, the fact is, I have a motive to break and enter, and when I learn about there being a law against people like me breaking and entering then I next have to ask myself: how would I feel about this?
Suddenly the law that gives me such a feeling of comfort and support doesn’t quite look the same anymore. That law now seems restrictive, that law is threatening to take away my freedom, my freedom to break into someone else’s house and take their stuff from them. The laws, and the enforcers of these laws are trying to oppress me. They are against me, and frankly, the majority of people must be against me too if they’re laws. I’m alone and everyone is picking on me because I like to break and enter into other people’s places.
A law that generally doesn’t bother me would be seen as restrictive to a burglar as a law that restricts say my freedom to speak in public. This oddly gives me something in common with criminals that I previously hadn’t realised: some laws bother me greatly, like the one that says I need to pay $80 for parking my car outside my own house because I had neglected to hang my permit on my car one day. The latter law bothers me because I know full well the vast majority of the population neither voted for, nor support such laws, but regardless who we vote for those laws never change while the amount we get charged always seems to increase.
Anyway, back to the criminal mind! The criminal has a different perspective to me on the nature of criminal law. For me criminal laws which protect me, my property, and my contracts with other people are the essence of civilised behaviour. They are the reason we have civilisation, and any prosperity at all, and if the police only enforced the criminal laws, for everyone impartially, and no other laws of dubious virtue then I would view the police as heroic guardians of all that is civilised and beautiful.
But if I was a criminal then I would view those laws as transgressing on my freedom to do as I pleased: to rob, to steal, to exploit to rape, to kill, etc… Far from heroic guardians… for me the police would seem like an evil force of occupation. The general public who supported such laws as being jealous of me and my courage/freedom to do and take what I please from others. Indeed, I would languish in prison in self-pity saying, “what else could I do? I needed the money! It was there, I went and got it. So what?”
As a criminal I would want to band together with other criminals for protection and understanding. Because they would understand my desire to commit crimes, and they would share my hatred of the laws and those who enforced them. Perhaps I would want to form alliances with other criminals to escape imprisonment. Perhaps infiltrate the police force so I could protect other criminals like me, or as cover for my own criminal behaviours, and then ultimately seize political power within society so as to change the laws, namely to decriminalise crimes so that I, and those like me, are finally free to do all the criminal things we are generally not allowed to do. Furthermore, maybe I might want to get some revenge on society for shaming me, judging me, and hunting me down like an animal. Maybe I would like to pass new laws. Laws that restrict the freedoms of people… like me. People who don’t commit crimes and feel no motivation to…
This is one of the many strange, and interesting places empathy can take you. Empathy is a challenging and insightful intellectual exercise that can help you look at yourself, others, and the world in a completely different way to how you previously saw it. I’m going to continue working on building up my 2020 empathy vision this year, maybe you would like to join me and open your mind to the different ways you can see the world?
Disclaimer: I am in no way suggesting that we should sympathise with criminals. Rather, I am pointing out just how unreasonable they are. They don’t have sympathy for their victims, and thus they don’t deserve any sympathy for their crimes. It is interesting to note how differently they see honest people because the best way to protect yourself against criminals is to understand them.