Rugby, apartheid and Empathy Deficit Disorder

At the Western Province versus Blue Bulls rugby game on Saturday (which I attended with my dad and one of his friends), I got smacked on the head by an over-zealous Blue Bulls fan. It happened like this. On the way into the stadium, I got caught up in the crush of fans waiting to be searched for weapons. As we waited our turn to be patted down, the fans with the WP jerseys inevitably started taunting the fans with the Blue Bulls jerseys.

One inebriated WP fan with no front teeth and a little daughter in tow would lean into the face of a female Blue Bulls fan and shout “WP jou lekker ding!” (WP you lovely thing!) while another man took a placard with “PROVINCE” on it and kept shoving it right in front of her eyes. She kept ignoring the chants and knocking the placard out of the way with her hand. In front of her a woman in a Springbok rugby jersey bobbed up and down as she faced the other fan and joined in the chorus of “WP jou lekker ding”.

Then Ms Blue Bulls got hold of her team’s flag and started waving it around, knocking the placard out of the way each time the drunken WP fan put it right in front of her face. Somewhere in the melee, she also managed to smack me on the head with it. Already annoyed at being caught up in this little scene, I caught the flag and muttered “moenie my slaan nie” (don’t hit me) before managing to get away. The Blue Bulls fan looked momentarily embarrassed at having hit me and then continued waving her flag.

Now I mention this little incident because it seems to represent, on a very small scale, a lack of empathy. Not the hitting on the head perhaps (because that was an accident) but the drunken taunting of an opposing fan. As I’m typing this I realise that I could well have misread the situation entirely. Perhaps the Blue Bulls woman thrived on the attention she got but I found it quite annoying that the WP fans seemed to enjoy her discomfort. They had a captive audience and they were not going to miss out on having their bit of fun.

What I’m leading up to here is a broader discussion on the lack of empathy generally, particularly in South Africa.

Washington-based psychotherapist Douglas LaBier wrote an interesting article a while back on what he calls Empathy Deficit Disorder. It’s not something you’ll find in the DSM but it’s surprisingly common and is associated with many mental illnesses, especially the personality disorders, autism and schizophrenia.

Empathy is something that’s largely ignored in the popular media (or at least our popular media). On Friday a colleague was telling me about an interesting presentation on empathy, ‘mirror neurons’ and gender differences. Basically the study found that women have a far greater capacity for empathy than men, regardless of whether the person they observed was considered ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Men on the other hand actually took delight in the pain of those they considered ‘bad’. I could see this played out on Saturday at the local rugby game. A player on ‘our’ team gets hurt and we feel his pain whereas if an opposing player goes down in a crunching tackle, all the home fans cheer with delight. Now I’m not suggesting that they want to see him stretchered off the field but I’m always amazed at how South Africans in particular take delight in the setbacks of opposing teams. If the Aussie cricket and rugby teams are doing badly, the average South African sports fan will be puffed up with glee. And then they will feel crushed and rather depressed when their team loses. I just don’t get it. Hence my surprise this Saturday when the Aussies whalloped the Springboks and everyone got rather glum about it. It was just one game and the Springboks are still favourites to take the Tri-Nations so why not feel happy for a resurgent and very talented young Aussie team?

But that’s just sport. On Sunday P and I took a walk around our local supermarket – not the one we usually go to but the one that’s closest to our house. The lack of common courtesy, sensitivity or even awareness of the personal space of others came as a bit of a shock to me. Now I will often accidentally bump into people and apologise but your average shopper seems solely focused on their objective and oblivious to anyone else. They won’t even look at you while they effectively push you out of the way and there are very few smiles or acknowledgements of others’ emotions (and you’ll be lucky if you get a few words out of the cashier as well).

It’s easy to generalise this to society as a whole but it does strike me that apartheid was a fundamental lack of empathy towards the ‘other’ to an astonishing degree, justified in the name of ‘science’ and rationality. Terms such as ‘separate development’ and ‘racial differences’ were used to justify why those with the power (whites) should basically exploit those of ‘other races’ for their own advantage. I’m simplifying here but that’s what it seems to come down to. Is it any wonder that the ‘formerly disadvantaged’ (as well as the formerly advantaged) display an alarming lack of empathy in the form of a violence and abuse?

LaBier says:

EDD develops when people focus too much on acquiring power, status and money for themselves at the expense of developing … healthy relationships. Nearly every day we hear or read about people who have been derailed by the pursuit of money and recognition and end up in rehab or behind bars. But many of the people I see, whether therapy patients or career and business clients, struggle with their own versions of the same thing. They have become alienated from their own hearts and equate what they have with who they are.

So what’s the solution? LaBier suggests that …

Just as you can develop EDD by too much self-absorption, you can also overcome EDD by retraining your brain to take advantage of what is known as neuroplasticity. … […] By focusing on developing empathy, you can deepen your understanding and acceptance of how and why people do what they do and you can build respect for others. This doesn’t mean that you are whitewashing the differences you have with other people or letting them walk over you. Rather, empathy gives you a stronger, wiser base for resolving conflicts and trumps self-centered, knee-jerk reactions to surface differences.

I also think we need a concerted approach to teach empathy as part of the curriculum and we need to elect public officials who display this quality. And, more generally, I’d like to see a greater awareness that South Africans as a whole need to work on this if we’re to have a more healthy, happy society.


12 Responses to Rugby, apartheid and Empathy Deficit Disorder

  1. litlove says:

    Interesting. I don’t think there’s a society in the world that wouldn’t benefit from a little empathy training.

  2. saffer says:

    Put another way, we are really a bunch of assholes.

  3. Pete says:

    Litlove – True. It would be interesting to do a comparison though to see how societies compare with regards to empathy.

    Saffer – Well I wouldn’t go that far!

  4. I agree, actually, about South Africans and empathy, or the lack of it. It’s a result of decades of training in “us and them” mentality and an overdose of defensiveness, and will probably take decades to outgrow.

  5. natalian says:

    I agree that more emphasis should be placed in the development of a persons EQ.

  6. That is fascinating. And actually there is a program for developing empathy called “Roots of Empathy” that has astonishing impact. It’s done with young kids, k-grade 2 or so, and has long-lasting positive impact in many ways. It’s based on children observing and discussing, with guidance, the development of an infant from near newborn to the end of the schoolyear.

  7. Thanks for referencing my Washington Post article — and greetings from a fellow psychologist in the US! I think “empathy deficit” is a serious issue in today’s interconnected, interdependent world, requiring positive engagement, mutuality, etc. I posted a couple of brief pieces along the same lines, re the criticism of Obama for being too “empathic.” On my nascent blog,, if you want to take a look. Would like to visit South Africa someday; glad to make your acquaintance.

  8. Harriet says:

    First of all it sounds like rugby is a rough sport. And people bring their kids to watch these games? Is it played on the professional level like soccer or football?

    Here in the US we have rivalries between opposing professional sports teams, and there is sometimes a bit of profanity thrown around. I have rarely witnessed any physical contact between fans at games, my experience has been that it happens most frequently at ice hockey games, and these fans are quickly removed by security.

    I don’t think a sports venue would tend to bring out people’s more empathetic sides.

    In everyday situations like a grocery store, however, there should be displays of empathy, or at least common courtesy. People shouldn’t run each other over with their carts.

    I’m wondering if you live in a city environment, versus a rural one, and if you think that makes a difference in people’s attitudes.

    Where I live in the US I find people to be generally courteous, on an individual level at least. Society as a whole, though, I think tends towards empathy deficits. People have a sheep like mentality, and tend to follow the crowd, often leading to less than desirable results.

    As for me, I have too much empathy. I can feel sorry for a chair someone left out on the curb for the trash.

  9. Emily says:

    Fascinating. I had never considered this as a disorder, but I often wonder how South Africa is able to move forward as though apartheid had never happened. Clearly, that is not the case.

  10. doctordi says:

    I really can’t stand the horrible mob mentality yobism that comes out at sporting events, it’s just unbearable. I hate the booing, the glee at the other team’s injuries, the hurled glasses and loose punches. Ugh. It just takes all the fun out of it, not to mention the sportsmanship, hospitality, and, as you say, Pete, empathy.

    I think the western world is running a bit of an empathy deficit at the moment, I really wouldn’t point to South Africa except to say, ‘Hey, that’s just like us!’ – everything you describe I see all around me, and it’s a crying shame. I too keep hoping to see the tide turn, but if Charlotte’s right, we may be waiting a while.

  11. Pete says:

    Charlotte – It’s comforting to hear you say that – because I was wondering if it was just me who didn’t quite fit in here. Now I’m consciously looking for empathy and it is there (but not enough of it).

    Natalian – I agree. EQ is NB!

    Lilian – Thanks for that lead. I’ll definitely read up on the Roots of Empathy programme. Sounds like a great plan.

    Douglas – Welcome and great to meet you too. I really enjoyed reading your blog, especially the latest post on “Comfortably Numb at Midlife?” Let me know if you’re ever in Cape Town!

    Harriet – Rugby is like Gridiron Footbally without the padding and you’re only supposed to tackle the guy with the ball (mostly). Good point about the kids – I guess we socialise kids early on to violence. And I had to laugh at your grocery store comment. So true – we shouldn’t run over people with our carts. I guess people are mostly courteous here but Sunday morning at that store was crazy. The “me first and only” mindset is also very strong here. As for city versus rural, it’s city here (CT has about 3 million inhabitants) but we try to escape to the country when we can.

  12. Pete says:

    Emily – I would say that SA has made a lot of progress with regards to overcoming racial intolerance but we still have a long way to go. More concerning is the general lack of empathy which obviously has a racial element to it but cuts across all spheres.

    DoctorDi – Now you’ve got me interested in comparing Aus vs SA. I’ll have to read up more (since a visit is not in the budget right now) but my sense is that you guys must surely be better with regards to empathy. Perhaps that’s an ingrained SA inferiority thing.

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