It took me a long time to realize that “empathy is not a given in human affairs” — not even between brothers. The development of a quality — empathy’s an interesting one — requires motivation (for me: wanting to be a writer). Moving sideways but down the same line: “conscience” is also a quality developed in language out of perceived personal and social necessity. Essentially, it’s a code of behavior. The kicker, imho, involves a simple two-part argument about language itself: language behavior clinically observed may be predictable — it will have nouns and will be rule-based; however (!), language invention may be wild (it is, I assure you and will provide reference if necessary) and it’s that invention in language in which each culture suspends itself.
A friend who had cared for a senile and dying parent for some time said to me about her experience, “Can you imagine what it must have been like to be in the presence of an elder suffering from senility without the concept of senility?”
You may see where this may go with regard to excesses, cruelties, and sadism on the part of cultures that have invested heavily in the legitimacy of absolute power or who haven’t registered as problems bipolar mania, for example, or messianic delusion (we could build a long list of concepts not shared across cultures and therefore invisible from one to the other).
Remember this event? http://www.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/africa/08/28/libya.gadhafi.nanny/index.html
How could somebody do that? How could an entire family hide it (or, sadly, do similar things)?
Somebody had convinced themselves they had the privilege and right, and that was their consciousness and conscience.
Yesterday, another “malignant narcissist” had his military prepare nerve gas for use, probably, in his own state — estimated impact if released in an urban area: 100,000 dead within minutes. In that monster’s head, he may have the privilege and right and cause to drop those weapons in relation to his own (going colloquial here) “head trip”. Assad’s cloak has been Soviet Era Ba’ath Party ideology and encouragement, and — the same as with Saddam — it has helped him endorse his own grandiose delusions.
I’ve wandered long here and apologize if it’s too much. Nonetheless, if “language has a power” it’s this power to produce our story and suspend us — person and culture — in it, and the content of it, whether it defines a strong leader, a good man, greatness in some way, perfidy in another may determine what will matter to us and how conscience will work or seem to be absent altogether.