It is usually seen as a depressing paradox about human beings that we find it easier to sympathise with one person’s suffering than with that of thousands: Stalin probably never really said “one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic” – but he was right all the same. It’s not much of a paradox, though. It makes sense: each of us has access to only one set of thoughts and emotions – our own – so we’re obliged to relate to others by analogy, working on the assumption that they feel pain and joy like we do. (As philosophers enjoy pointing out, you can’t truly know that your family and friends aren’t just meaty robots, with no inner life at all.) And it’s obviously easier to draw an analogy between yourself and one other person, as opposed to “the population of Somalia” or “all victims of domestic violence”, let alone those killed in the future by global warming, who aren’t necessarily even born yet. Empathy requires mental gymnastics at the best of times. Empathy for whole categories of people requires Olympic-level skills, and most of us aren’t up to it.
Do bigots just lack imagination?