Empathy in a Lock Box: The Steubenville Case

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The Steubenville, Ohio rape case highlights a disturbing lack of empathy in the perpetrators and the passive observers. This relates to a growing trend in our society towards character disturbance, especially psychopathy.

For several weeks, many closely followed the trial of two Steubenville, Ohio high school football stars accused of performing sexual acts upon a teenage girl who was in such an impaired state that she was incapable of consent. The trial, and circumstances surrounding it, brought to the fore the rampant public misunderstandings and biases concerning rape, as well as the culture of silence and protection that often dominates school sports programs. (For more on the culture of silence and the need for speaking out and doing more to protect, see my comment on Dr Hook’s “The Penn State Scandal: Could Addressing Evil Have Helped Prevent It?”, as well as her “Empathy Requires that We All Speak Out” and my own “Protecting the Children is Everyone’s Job, And Not Just at Penn State”.) But even in the wake of the conviction on March 18 of the two young men principally involved in the crime, dangerous public perceptions remain. Only one day after the perpetrators sobbingly assured the judge that they had now come to a fuller awareness of the damage they inflicted on their victim and were truly sorry for their actions, two teenage female “friends” of the young men were cited by authorities for making threats against the victim in retaliation for her reporting of the crime and bringing hardship and disgrace upon her assailants. Clearly, there’s still a lot of work to be done to cultivate a healthy mindset in the students, parents, educators, and community in this all-too-typical American town. And because Steubenville is so typical in so many ways, that unquestionably means it will take a lot of work to change attitudes in the public at large.

I wish it could be said that cases like the one in Steubenville are a rarity. Sadly, they are not. For several years I served on a state commission charged with developing programs and encouraging the implementation of policies geared toward reducing the incidence of rape, child abuse, and domestic violence. And I can tell you with certainty, not only from my years of service on that board, but also from the mounds of empirical data I’ve digested over the last 30 years, that scenarios like the one in Steubenville happen every day all across the country. Tragically, rape and the considerable collateral damage associated with this heinous crime rarely come to light. That’s partly because of the additional trauma the victim often has to go through merely to seek justice. It’s also because of the shame, stigma, and completely unwarranted guilt many victims feel. As a result, most rape victims don’t report their assault. For many, to report the crime and go through the ordeal it takes to seek justice and possibly prevent another crime is like being victimized all over again. And were it not for the role of social media in the Steubenville saga, it’s quite likely that this particular rape would also have gone unnoticed. Ironically, within hours of the assault, Twitter, Instagram, and even YouTube were deluged with the sordid details of the crime. That’s because several attendees at the party where the assault took place found the events not only amusing, but also somehow worth sharing. So even with the facts coming to light, the victim found herself not only unsupported (as is unfortunately often the case) but also even further humiliated, isolated, and even demonized. It was not until a hacker threatened to reveal the names of other alleged participants and to expose a suspected cover-up by school authorities and police that sufficient public attention was focused on this tragedy, as well as the workings (or all-too-frequent failures) of the justice system. In the end, justice was at least partly served, albeit barely.

Aside from the truly reprehensible trauma the victim suffered, I’ve been deeply troubled by another very disconcerting aspect of this case: that so many individuals (not just the principal perpetrators) involved in the crime appeared to lack any meaningful empathy for what was happening to the victim during the assault. The scene was reminiscent of the ordeal of the school bus monitor who was mercilessly bullied while several students passively looked on, or even took delight in the torture. (See my comments about this and about empathy deficits in character-impaired individuals in “Budding Psychopaths or Immature Characters?”.) It makes me think there’s something in our current cultural zeitgeist that, in addition to fostering character disturbance in general, is inhibiting the development of healthy empathy. This is ominous in the face of our growing knowledge about how severe empathy deficits contribute to the most pathological of all character disturbances: psychopathy. It suggests that our cultural milieu might be fostering not only an increase in psychopathic personality development, but also sub-psychopathic yet still very significant forms of character pathology.

Without the capacity to become unnerved at the sight of someone’s victimization, we simply cannot remain civilized. We necessarily descend into savagery (or fail to ascend from it). And whether we are the active perpetrators of savagery or the passive co-conspirators and enablers of it — as was the case for perhaps 20 or more persons in the Steubenville case — we significantly debase ourselves when we behave as though another human life means absolutely nothing to us other than being an object for our sordid amusement. That’s why the stark realities of this case truly unnerve me. Sure, some of the folks I referenced above verbalized some after-the-fact appreciation for the wrongness of their passive endorsement of the crime and lack of outrage at the time. But such new-found compassion is too little and comes too late for the victim. Worse, there are still those — even in the face of all that’s come to light, including the perpetrators’ own admissions of wrongdoing — who not only have no empathy for the victim, but also actively seek to do her harm. Where is the decency?, I find myself asking. Why isn’t there at least some degree of empathy? How can so many have so little appreciation for the value of a human life? And why, above all, was there such a lack of regard at the time the tragic events were unfolding?

Researchers tell us that the rudiments of empathy can be found in children as young as 1 year old. Many agree that by age 4, healthy children have a fairly well-developed capacity to feel for another person’s circumstances. And by age 7, we’re supposed to have developed at least a basic moral compass. And while we also know that a mature sense of social responsibility is still not completely developed in one’s teenage years, we’ve always expected basic empathy to be firmly in place by then. Because it appeared to me that at least some of the folks involved in this crime do have some genuine remorse, that can only mean that whatever empathy they do have was so very tightly compartmentalized (put in a sort of mental “lock box”) at the time, that they were able to do what they did without sufficient compunction — which ought to be a very disturbing thought to anyone.

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In my book Character Disturbance, I suggest, based on years of working with character-impaired individuals, that there are “10 commandments” of sound character development that must be observed in the rearing process for a person to develop a healthy sense of self and social responsibility. And I’ve posted a series of articles about those axioms of character development on this site. But I’ve come to realize that I didn’t give near enough attention to the role of empathy development, how impairments in this area affect character formation, and what must be done to foster a healthy regard for others that can’t be conveniently compartmentalized when a person’s baser instincts try to prevail. So I’m committing myself to looking more deeply into this area of character development, not only to simply better understand the issue, but also, if possible, to help stem the rising tide of heartless human mistreatment.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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