Empathy, I once read somewhere, is not inexhaustible. Your empathy can become overstimulated. You can be empathy-tired. And it was a good thing I read that, for it gave a glow of humanity to my inability to fulfill the high commission of human love. Not now. Not today.
So much is happening. And then suddenly it’s over, done, finito. Just as I’m starting to delve into climate gentrification. Because, yes, it is a problem that the rich are moving to places where the climate does no damage. And that they are refurbishing and gentrifying everything there. But I can’t let the problem get to my brain anymore. I close the windows and close the laptop. And, as always when I catch myself being heartless, think I should do something.
Well that’s easier said than done. While I’m baking an omelet, I’m already thinking about civilization history. Because what is civilization? An increase in empathy, a growing sensitivity to the pain of others. The fact that I’m standing here in the kitchen and not sitting behind my work table to improve the world from empathy, is a lack of civilization.
And if you look at it that way, gentrification is also a lack of civilization. A neighborhood can become more prosperous and more luxurious with the arrival of the wealthy, but if this drives the less wealthy to poorer places, there is no question of civilization.
More luxury, more prosperity, more cultural facilities and less civilisation: that combination is in itself a very remarkable phenomenon. But you can also turn the argument around and it gets really interesting. You can see civilization as a form of gentrification. Not infrequently, it is the privileged who insist on greater empathy, on increasing sensitivity to abuses in the world; thereby ignoring the objections of the less well-off.
I’m not getting anywhere today, so I’ll just continue the thought. I must still have the letter someone recently sent me about the essay ‘The Great Cat Massacre’ by historian Robert Darnton from 1984. That essay is about a cat killing in Paris, sometime in the late 1730s, and it is mainly about the clash between different social classes and their diverse sensitivities.
Let me not describe exactly what happened to the cats in Rue Saint-Severin. I will limit myself to the key point, namely, that the animals got stuck between the owners of a printing house and their exploited workmen. In the printing house, the young journeymen lived and worked in appalling conditions, while the cats were lavishly pampered at the family table. That didn’t go well. The journeymen put the cats to death after a lawsuit. A process that they then repeated about twenty more times for fun.
“Keeping pets was as foreign to the workers as torturing animals was to the bourgeoisie,” Darnton writes. “Caught between incompatible sensitivities, the cats had the worst of both worlds.”
Much has been written about this case since 1984 and you can conduct various socio-psychological analyzes on it. In any case, it is certain that one of the journeymen later called the ritual murder of the cats “one of the funniest things” that had ever happened at the print shop. And that for modern man the events are extremely unfunny. Both judgments are “historically and culturally contingent”, wrote researcher Sarah Jones in 2015. Beneath the surface there are always issues surrounding the actual distribution of power.
You can see this even more strongly in the Amsterdam Palingo riot, the popular uprising that erupted in 1886 when the police took action against a game in which eels were pulled apart. That too was a riot wasn’t so much about eels but on the unequal distribution of power and capital in the rise of industry.
In our time, a gratifying increase in sensitivity and empathy is visible. Politicians apologize all the time and we find things less and less funny. All profit. Because of the climate we will slowly remove the cow from the landscape and look back in amazement from history at a time when we drank their milk and ate them.
All civilization. And gentrification. Essays will also be written about bloody resistance to the disappearance of the cow from that civilized world in which the wealthy will have moved to regions with mild climates, with their money and their diet of algae.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of July 20, 2021