Whereas it’s obvious that distance can be a protection against human rights violations – privacy needs distance, and physical integrity requires a safety zone – it’s equally true that it often harms human rights.
We care more about our friends and family than about strangers, especially distant strangers, about whom we know very little, if anything. Maybe we don’t know their predicament and hence the idea of our possible duty to help them and safeguard their rights doesn’t even arise. Or maybe we know about their predicament but we’re ignorant about the causes. Hence, they could have themselves to blame, in which case we tend to think that we’re not obliged to help. Or if they don’t have themselves to blame, our ignorance about the causes of their predicament inhibits our effective assistance. Maybe we also assume that the causes are local, and hence not our fault.
It’s safe to say that such feelings of detachment increase proportionally with distance, because the further away the less we know and the more we assume that we are not responsible. To some extent at least: the effect of distance flattens out; we’re not more detached from people five thousand miles away than from people four thousand miles away.
The effect of distance, although it decreases after a while, does start very quickly. A few meters can be enough to reduce empathy:
Drawing on motivational approaches to emotion, the authors propose that the perceived change in spatial distance to pictures that arouse negative emotions exerts an influence on the significance of these pictures. Two experiments induced the illusion that affective pictures approach toward the observer, recede from the observer, or remain static. To determine the motivational significance of the pictures, emotional valence and arousal ratings as well as startle responses were assessed. Approaching unpleasant pictures were found to exert an influence on both the valence and the arousal elicited by the pictures. Furthermore, movement of pleasant or neutral pictures did not influence startle responses, while the second experiment showed that approaching unpleasant pictures elicited enhanced startle responses compared to receding unpleasant pictures. These findings support the view that a change of spatial distance influences motivational significance and thereby shapes emotional responses. (source)
In other words: perceiving the approach of negative emotion-eliciting scenes intensifies the associated felt emotion, while perceiving receding emotion-eliciting scenes weakens the associated felt emotion.
There’s a less abstract illustration of this point in an experiment conducted by Dan Ariely:
[W]hat causes people to stop for beggars and what causes them to walk on by[?] To look into this question, I called on … an acting student at Boston University. I asked [him] to try a few different approaches to begging and to keep track of the approaches that made him more or less money. He made more money when he was standing and when he looked people in the eyes. It seemed that the most lucrative strategy was to put in more effort, to get people to notice him, and to look them in the eyes so that they could not pretend to not see him. (source)
So a reduction of both the physical distance (standing) and emotional distance (eye contact) resulted in more giving and less poverty.
At some point, something very interesting happened. There was another beggar on the street – a professional beggar – who … said, “Look kid, you don’t know what you’re doing. Let me teach you.” And so he did. This beggar took our concept of effort and human contact to the next level, walking right up to people and offering his hand up for them to shake. With this dramatic gesture, people had a very hard time refusing him or pretending that they did not see him. Apparently, the social forces of a handshake are simply too strong and too deeply engrained to resist – and many people gave in and shook his hand. Of course, once they shook his hand, they would also look him in the eyes; the beggar succeeded at breaking the social barrier and was able to get many people to give him money. (source)
You could argue that this whole distance thing is a red herring. If everyone takes care of those who are close, then distance won’t be a problem. Still, it will be a problem in many cases because not everyone has friends and family who can help. The beggars in the quote above probably only know other beggars and hence have to rely on efforts to reduce distance.
Indeed, one way of solving the distance problem is to try to reduce distance. The beggars’ strategy isn’t the only example. NGO campaigns almost always feature close-ups of the faces of people in distress, as well as personal stories about their predicament and about how the global system has made it worse (implicating better off people far away). These faces and stories reduce distance in a way that is similar to the beggars’ eye contact. Alternatively, instead of trying to reduce distance, one can attempt to discredit the idea of distance altogether and foster a more cosmopolitan approach to caring.
There’s also another way in which distance can cause human rights violations, although you would have a hard time finding a lot of examples at this point in history (perhaps only in failed states such as Afghanistan or Somalia where a violent and extremist rebel movement tries to assert its authority):
Margaret Anderson explains that the best way to understand the dastardly public torture of criminals in early modern Europe is to consider the need of authority to establish itself over great distance, in an era before cell-phones and a legitimate judicial systems. (source)
Other posts in this series are here.