8 Indisputable Reasons to Support Edward Snowden (And Many Disputable Ones Not To)

Here are all of the arguments against Edward Snowden. This is why they are wrong.

Pictured: An actual, not-a-joke, publicized-on-twitter, mission badge from a spy satellite program to empower U.S. Government data collection programs.

Earlier this year, I took part in a public debate in front of a few hundred people in Dublin, Ireland over the resolution, "This house believes that Edward Snowden is no hero."

My team lost. Badly.

Against my wishes, I was on the side arguing against Mr. Snowden, meaning that I had to make as strong a case as possible for the side that I did not believe in (such is the nature of formal debating). In order to write my speech, I racked my brain for the arguments that I have heard people make against me as I have hailed the Snowden-enabled revelations about surveillance state overreach since they came out in June.

The points I came up with sound alarmingly similarly to this Slate article called Why Edward Snowden Won't (And Shouldn't) Get Clemency, which reads like an encyclopedic account of the bad arguments and personal prejudices that have all too often guided the public discourse about the surveillance revelations.

Fred Kaplan, the author of the piece, wrote it in response to a major article from January 1st by the New York Times Editorial Board arguing that Edward Snowden is a whistle-blower, not a leaker, and should therefore be granted clemency or even amnesty by the U.S. government. Quoth the Times piece: "When someone reveals that government officials have routinely and deliberately broken the law, that person should not face life in prison at the hands of the same government."

It turns out that all of the different bad arguments against Edward Snowden (and I don't think there are any noteworthy good ones) are actually the same fallacious point.

It's worth noting here that the best reason that anyone could have for really having it out for Edward Snowden, for wishing him ill, is that his leaks have weakened the U.S. government's ability to prevent terrorist attacks on civilians.

But, it really must be remembered, the NSA and related agencies have not been able to come up with a shred of evidence that any of their unconventional methods (the dragnet surveillance and the overreaching snooping which have been approved largely by secret court decisions since 9/11, or which haven't been legally approved at all) have been of any use at stopping terrorist attacks.

Indeed, morality and legality aside, how can an agency which pays hundreds of employees to play World of Warcraft and Second Life because terrorists could, in principle, communicate through them, possibly correctly determine the very small chance that some particular communication is terrorist plotting?

The simple answer is that they could not. Dragnet spying isn't just wrong, it's the wrong way to save lives. It's an open question whether paring down the bulkiness of the surveillance apparatus might actually improve the efficacy of agencies at finding and stopping what is, ultimately, a very rare thing.

Because the Times editorial has resparked the conversation about this story, now is a timely moment to rehash the major points at issue. I'll use Kaplan's Slate piece as a guide, since it is so comprehensively riddled with bad argumentation and fact-twisting. I'll be going through it point by point to explain why there is no reason not to support Edward Snowden in his personal and ideological struggles.

(I must confess that, before this article, I rather respected Kaplan's work. He is an accomplished journalist and foreign policy thinker and a damned good writer. I don't think he is Bad or Stupid, just that he is emblematic of the sort of older, typically male, hawkish, international relations insider or wannabe-insider who have turned out to be the most vociferous and wrong-headed critics of Snowden. The author aside, the piece I am arguing against here is, anyway, almost jarringly intellectually dishonest.)

Here goes:

1) In a minor feat, Kaplan first manages to offend in the caption of the photo that leads the article, a picture of Edward Snowden at a press conference (that is, assuming it was he and not an editor who wrote the caption). The caption reads, "A frame grab made from AFPTV footage, reportedly taken on Oct. 9, 2013, shows Edward Snowden speaking with retired U.S. intelligence workers and activists in an unidentified location. He may well end up in an unidentified location for a very long time."

It's a pretty awful caption. Whoever wrote it definitely relishes the idea of his rotting away in a secret prison. The real problem here is a failure of imagination, a failure of empathy, that most imaginative mental act.


2) Kaplan's first major factual critique of Snowden comes soon after. His point here, and his main point in the article, seems to be this: "if [Snowden's] stolen [Sic] trove of beyond-top-secret documents had dealt only with the NSA’s domestic surveillance, then some form of leniency might be worth discussing."

First of all, if Snowden "stole" the data from the NSA, what does Mr. Kaplan suggest we call the methods by which the NSA gathered that data in the first place?

But, Kaplan goes on, Snowden also leaked documents that relate to non-domestic issues. This is especially damning because, as we all know, "All men are created equal" really means "All men with blue passports that say 'United States of America' on them are created equal". Need I clarify that the previous sentence was sarcastic?

Kaplan here presents a damning list: "...Snowden did much more than that. The documents that he gave the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman and the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald have, so far, furnished stories about the NSA’s interception of email traffic, mobile phone calls, and radio transmissions of Taliban fighters in Pakistan’s northwest territories; about an operation to gauge the loyalties of CIA recruits in Pakistan; about NSA email intercepts to assist intelligence assessments of what’s going on inside Iran; about NSA surveillance of cellphone calls “worldwide,” an effort that (in the Post’s words) “allows it to look for unknown associates of known intelligence targets by tracking people whose movements intersect.”

If it were shocking that American intelligence tries to intercept radio transmissions and emails from enemy forces in an active (if undeclared) military zone like Northwest Pakistan, this would be damning. Indeed, if any of these disclosures that Kaplan lists were vital operations that were likely to be unexpected by the enemy, Kaplan's point would be a strong one. But, that is not what is happening. There's another story.

Kaplan is being deeply disingenuous here. If you actually follow any of the links that Kaplan provides like citations for the list of ills brought on by Snowden's disclosures, you will see that they do not actually describe the things that the hyperlinks say they do, at least not without considerable stretching. The first link, for example, describes revelations about secret and highly contentious drone activities in Pakistan. But if you read the article itself, the only information that Snowden's documents actually add is that the NSA also, not just the CIA and military, is involved in this. Useful information for the Taliban this is not.

In the second link, to give another example, the article details the "Black Budget" of the intelligence communities, which happens to reveal that (gasp!) the CIA routinely checks its recruits for loyalty, especially in the Middle East. Far from being a Snowden revelation, the CIA's practice of using polygraphs and other measures to check the loyalty of employees and operators is public knowledge. I even have a family member who works at high level in the CIA who is allowed to openly acknowledge that practices like this go on (the content of what it is he is supposed to be loyal to is, of course, not open for discussion). 

With each of the links, Kaplan performs a similar act of subterfuge, relying on the likelihood that his readers will not click through and check his citations. If a college student were to be found using citations this way, he would be accused of academic dishonesty or plagiarism.


3) Another big problem that people, Kaplan included, have with Snowden's disclosures is not that they hurt the intelligence community by giving enemies useful information, but, rather, that they do so by damaging the credibility and likability of the relevant intelligence agencies or even the whole U.S. government.

This opinion gets the issue precisely backwards.

It's a bit like the horrid arguments that people made during the Salman "Rushdie affair", when people blamed Mr. Rushdie for inspiring the killings and bombings that resulted from the fatwa on his head, rather than blaming the killers and bombers and fatwa-placers who hoped to terrorize the global community into accepting their backwards religious moral code.

In fact, even more than it is like the Rushdie fatwa response, it is like a childhood bully, who strikes his victim with his own hand and tells him to "stop hitting yourself". To punish or denigrate Edward Snowden because the NSA surveillance was so overreaching that its very public exposure inspires a domestic and international backlash is a bit like if a teacher, coming across the aforementioned bullying scenario, put the victim into detention for hitting himself.

If the only thing standing between somebody's actions and universal condemnation of those same actions is public awareness of them, then it is not he or she who makes us aware of them who is to blame. Let's not get distracted. It is he or she who performed the actions in the first place who is to blame.

The NSA, not Edward Snowden, is responsible for the public backlash against the NSA surveillance programs.

Brazil's President Rousseff agrees. Angela Merkel agrees.


4) Next, Kaplan takes aim at people who argue that Snowden's case is analogous to Daniel Ellsberg's, who leaked The Pentagon Papers, and to that of the people who left the country to escape the draft during the Vietnam War. Kaplan rightly states that those people deserved their pardons.

His argument is as logically convoluted as you might expect by this point in this article. It rests on the premise that the cases are not analogous because the pardons for Ellsberg and for the draft-dodgers came after the historical events (U.S. entry into The Vietnam War) that they opposed were over.

Can this be serious? Draft dodging becomes OK the moment the draft ends? That doesn't even make sense. The propositions that A) "There should not have been a war in the first place" and B) "People were not wrong to avoid the draft where they did not want to take part in a brutal war" are so obviously logical corollaries to C) "Ellsberg and the draft dodgers ought to have been pardoned" that I shudder to have to mention it.

Oh, and also, as Kaplan notes but ignores, Ellsberg himself has drawn the comparison between his story and Snowden's.


5) A similar misunderstanding of the irrelevance of chronology comes up when Kaplan discusses Snowden’s motivations. Says Kaplan: "The Times editorial paints an incomplete picture when it claims that he 'stole a trove of highly classified documents after he became disillusioned with the agency’s voraciousness.' In fact, as Snowden himself told the South China Morning Post, he took his job as an NSA contractor, with Booz Allen Hamilton, because he knew that his position would grant him “access to lists of machines all over the world [that] the NSA hacked.” He stayed there for just three months, enough to do what he came to do."

I’ve heard this criticism a lot, especially when people are grasping at straws to explain just why they feel so strongly that Snowden is a bad guy. But whether from others or from Kaplan, this story, once again, doesn’t add up. And it doesn’t add up because it deliberately and dishonestly neglects to mention the context.

How, I might ask Kaplan, would Snowden have known to take a job at Booz Allen in order to reveal NSA secrets, if those were indeed secrets to him?

The answer is that Snowden was already an intelligence employee in a similar job, just at the CIA rather than with the NSA through Booz Allen. He already knew the relevant information. Whether Mr. Snowden had his crisis of conscience before or after changing between similar jobs does not and cannot reflect on his character and moral backbone. Condemning Snowden for getting a job with the NSA in order to more effectively publicize surveillance state overreach, where he had already decided that said publicization was a moral necessity, is a bit like criticizing him for the brand of flash drive he used to download the files.


6) The article's next and most vicious attack on Snowden really shows Kaplan's hand. He goes after Snowden at length for what he considers to be Snowden's elective ties to Russia and China, as though a man with only one option is responsible for not taking a second and better option. Here Kaplan reveals his historical hangover from the cold war.

I am a young man, and I do not pretend to understand the fear and hatred that the constant threat of nuclear war bred during the cold war. That said, and keeping in mind that I have open-eyed and fiery condemnations for both Russian and Chinese human rights violations, it will simply not do in this day and age to use “Russia” and “China” as scare words. That is not how modern minds, much less good rhetoric, work.

Thinking that Snowden, quite clearly a liberal (note the little L) young man, has some implicit or explicit love for Putin's brutal, homophobic, violent, kleptocratic regime is not something that we can take seriously. The same goes for China.

Kaplan quotes Snowden praising both Hong Kong's history of press freedom and Putin's Russia, but, as usual, it is taken out of context and morally reversed. In fact, it is quite obvious when you read Snowden's words, in or out of context, that they are expressing gratitude only for the asylum that Hong Kong and Russia have given him, not praise for the systems of governance in those nations. "President Obama," Snowden is clearly saying, "will you not be even as lenient as a one party state is?"

And what has Obama's response to Snowden been? Does Snowden have a good reason to be so afraid of America as to prefer to live in even Russia (where, I might add, he has only been granted a year of asylum)?

When the scandals first broke, Obama said that the government isn't listening in on anyone's phone calls. He lied. When Snowden was identified as the source, Obama scoffed that he wasn't going to be "scrambling the jets to get a 29-year-old hacker." The very next week, in an unprecedented (un)diplomatic move, Obama scrambled the jets to force a plane carrying Bolivian President Evo Morales to land in Europe because of rumors that Snowden was aboard. In other words, he lied.

I could go on.

So no, Snowden does not want to be in Russia because he thinks Russia is so great. For that, he could have simply moved there. Snowden wants to be in Russia not because it has a record of treating its citizens with greater respect than does America. Rather, he wants to be there for the simple reason that they will not put him in jail and torture him for being a whistle-blower on America, as the American government has proven it is willing to do even to the much less emotionally and mentally stable Chelsea Manning. This is a simple, understandable, and morally neutral calculation on Snowden's part.

7) Next comes the oath argument. Oh, the oath argument.

Any Snowden critic, backed into an intellectual corner, will deploy this argument, saying that, whatever the other facts may be, Snowden swore an oath of secrecy, Snowden broke said oath, ipso facto mortal sin, bad person, going to hell.

This is absurd. For one thing, Snowden also swore an oath to protect and uphold the U.S. Constitution (when he was a CIA employee). These black and white thinkers do not offer any advice as to what to do when one has sworn two countervailing oaths. For another, nobody really believes that an oath is universally morally binding above all other moral considerations. Not one person reading this thinks that, if he or she entered a neighbor's basement on the condition that he or she swear an oath not to disclose what is inside it, it is right to uphold that oath if their neighbor turned out to be Ariel Castro. At least I hope very, very deeply that they would not keep that oath.


8) The most deceptive and confusing thing that Snowden's detractors seem to do without fail, and Kaplan is no exception, is to focus entirely or almost entirely on the programs that Snowden revealed first; Especially, the collection of domestic phone metadata from private telecom companies by secret court subpoena.

This program was the first that Snowden made public, way back in early July, even before the more disconcerting PRISM program. It is indeed shocking that the placer and receiver of every phone call since at least 2007 has been recorded by the U.S. government, but that is by far the least upsetting revelation that Snowden has provided. It is also likely legal under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978.

Why, I might ask, do Snowden's detractors almost never discuss programs like MUSCULAR and XKEYSCORE? Why do they not mention the literal dozens of more overreaching activities that we have learned our so-called protectors (whom we fund) engage in? Why do Kaplan and his ilk not seem to know that it is now confirmed that the NSA is also collecting the GPS location data from our cellphones. We also know that at least part of the intelligence branch, specifically the FBI, has a technology which allows it to remotely activate and monitor people's laptop webcams without turning on the light which indicates that it is active. It's a safe assumption that if the FBI can do that, so can the NSA and any number of other agencies. This is the point at which I break down and use the word Orwellian.

MUSCULAR is a program that steals data from the biggest internet companies in the world, like Google and Yahoo!, without the knowledge or consent of said companies. It's worth noting that: A) most people think of email, which both of those companies provide major services for, like they think of "snail" mail. That is, both secure and protected by law. And B) All of these companies, some of the biggest boons to the U.S. economy, rely on a public perception of them as secure, private, and technologically savvy, an image which the MUSCULAR program stands to pervert or destroy.

XKEYSCORE is significantly worse. XKEYSCORE is a program which records "nearly everything a user does on the internet". I don't think I have to detail how much of modern life takes place on the internet. The program gathers social media profiles, browsing history, and emails, among other things. NSA employees or contractors with access to it need or needed no prior authorization, much less a warrant, to use it. Unsurprisingly, this has lead to abuses, including at least a dozen admitted cases of NSA employees using this spying technology to snoop on spouses, significant others or prospective lovers.

FASCIA, the program that records all of our cell phone GPS location data was repeatedly lied about, covered up, and hidden from the American public. I'd just like to note that in the movie The Dark Knight, the plot point which was the major moral centerpiece of the film was Batman revealing that he could track everyone's location via their cellphones. The moral crux of the movie's climax is when Morgan Freeman's character, Lucius Fox, the wise ethical voice in the film, says he will not be part of giving anyone that much power, and threatens to walk out. This is the same character who gave a vindictive, violent, psychologically scarred vigilante a tank. The moral tension of the movie, the highest grossing and most popular action movie ever at the time, resolves only when Batman destroys this technology. Infer from that what you will about a good public attitude regarding privacy.

For further information, look up more of these NSA programs, like TUMULT, and TURMOIL. (Why yes, funny you should ask, they do all sound like a nickname that a bond villain might give to his laser.)

Remember the massive outcry about Bush's warrantless wiretapping? Remember what The Left (along with a few brave conservatives) had to say about that? Why do those righteously outraged arguments fail when the scale of the crime is multiplied many thousand fold?

And why does Kaplan seem so focused on Snowden's very first and least damning revelations? I'll speculate; Perhaps lots of Snowden's detractors became entrenched so firmly in their opinion of him as a disruptor and a sabateur and a hacker-kid that by the time they could hear him eloquently defending the charges against himself, and by the time they could have formed their opinions in light of the most serious abuses of power, some of which I just detailed, their minds were already closed. 

What I'd say to them, and what I will say to Mr. Kaplan, to whom I plan on emailing this article, is simply that it is not too late to defend those who "defend freedom" by actually standing up for particular freedoms, rather than those who "defend freedom" by advancing the coercive might of a particular political entity called America. It is, after all, the American thing to do.

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Why compassion fades

A scientific look into a ubiquitous phenomenon.

Photo credit: Adrian Swancar on Unsplash
Sex & Relationships

One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or the recent Sri Lanka Easter bombings? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?

Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."

Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.

Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured, and dead mounts.

The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion. The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."

That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"

The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.

Some back story

Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.

The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.


Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.

There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.

A Dunbar Correlation

Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?

"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.

I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.

Professor Dunbar's response:

"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense. . . . One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous."

I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:

"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."

In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time — investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.

Friendship, kinship and limitations

"We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145."

These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.

"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.

As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three — which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."

We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.

Emotional regulation

In a paper, C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."

This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.

If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.

Gray matter matters

One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network."

It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷

It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.

Rabbit holes

There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:

(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."

(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.

In the end

Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.

Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.

Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.