TCS Daily

Why Did So Many Believe the False Rumors of Rape and Murder in New Orleans?

By Sandra Peart - October 3, 2005 12:00 AM

Before Katrina struck, a "progressive" colleague remarked that anyone who stayed in the Gulf Coast deserved whatever outcome s/he got, and that, anyway, we subsidized their living on the coast in Louisiana (and other flood-prone areas). No one in the group, myself included, objected. We were unable to imagine why anyone wouldn't leave the city when officials told them to go.

I've come to regret that failure of imagination on my part and I imagine my colleagues would regret theirs. The stories and the images from Biloxi, New Orleans, and elsewhere, make it clear that there but for the various accidents of life goes I, or any of us.

This is Adam Smith's powerful point in his 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith's passage about the European and China is most telling. Smith's European -- who initially fails to sympathize with the Chinese about to be "swallowed up by an earthquake" -- is horrified by the thought of doing nothing and would willingly give up his finger to save the Chinese he can imagine.

Doing Something: Sympathy, Praiseworthiness, and Smith

The act of changing positions imaginatively with another -- putting ourselves in the place of someone trying to decide whether to leave a lifetime behind -- makes us realize how similar we all are. Imaginative reciprocity, if you will. Abstract from luck and history and you've got similarity. But it's hard to imagine that you might be pretty much the same way as a person without a family or a car. Watching those who stayed behind makes it easier to imagine and, as Smith argued, we realize the essential similarity.

Smith may have found an explanation for the outpouring of help for Katrina's victims. We help them because we come to realize they're like us and we can imagine how they would regard our actions. We earn approbation by doing what we imagine they'd want us to do. We're horrified -- as Smith's European is -- by the thought of doing nothing.

An article by Sue Anne Pressley in the Washington Post (Sept. 6) brings the element of blame, or what Smith calls praiseworthiness, to the fore. She contrasts the outpouring of help for Katrina victims with our treatment of the homeless. Some of the contrast is attributed to ideas about blameworthiness: anyone of us might be a victim of weather; the homeless, so the argument goes, are more blameworthy than Katrina's victims.

Smith recognized the power of praiseworthiness in the imaginative process that generates sympathy for our fellow human beings. People bring presuppositions about praiseworthiness or lack thereof to an event like Katrina or homelessness. One of the lessons we've seen in the last few weeks is that the presumption of lack of praiseworthiness can lead to indifference and inaction. We've also seen that the presuppositions are merely starting points: large numbers of Americans have, thankfully, come to revise their judgments concerning the blameworthiness of the victims.

Why the Past Matters -- Deja Vu

Does the past matter? It does indeed. If we're the same, then since depravity is pretty much unimaginable behavior for me, I can't imagine it of you. If we're not, perhaps I will believe unsubstantiated reports to the contrary about you.

In 1865 the Eyre controversy occurred in Jamaica when violence broke out between former slaves and the authorities. Governor Eyre installed martial law; wire whips were used to restore order; the dead and mutilated were greatly disproportional to the initial uprising.

A contemporary report follows from Punch:

        "Last Case of Colour-Blindness":

        There has been fearful business in Jamaica. Blacks rioted, were fired upon, 
        and the riot became madness. The blacks slew many whites, and the massacre 
        was attended by incidents too revolting to be described in pages usually 
        devoted to pleasantness.
... a young clergyman was hewn in pieces, and 
        the blacks enacted hideous orgies, devouring the brains of their victims

        (2 December 1865, p. 216)

Notwithstanding the total lack of evidence in support of such reports, they were widely believed.

Compare this, if you can stomach it, to the reports of violence, rape, and even cannibalism that came out of New Orleans in recent weeks. Some of these have now been retracted or corrected. See, for instance the report from the Times-Picayune (26 September):

        As the fog of warlike conditions in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath has cleared, 
        the vast majority of reported atrocities committed by evacuees have turned 
        out to be false, or at least unsupported by any evidence, according 
        to key military, law enforcement, medical and civilian officials in positions 
        to know.

The parallel is disheartening. It's a great failing of imaginative reciprocity -- of sympathy based on a supposition that we are essentially alike -- that we believed such unsubstantiated reports.

The author is professor of economics at Baldwin-Wallace College. Find more of her writing here.

To see more of the extensive coverage of the 2005 Hurricane Season from TCS, click here.


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