“[T]here is a terrible irony in the assumption that we can ever transcend our parochial tendencies entirely. Social scientists have found that in-group love and out-group hate originate from the same neurobiological basis, are mutually reinforcing, and co-evolved—because loyalty to the in-group provided a survival advantage by helping our ancestors to combat a threatening out-group. That means that, in principle, if we eliminate out-group hate completely, we may also undermine in-group love. Empathy is a zero-sum game.”
I’m not convinced that empathy is a zero-sum game. I recognise that part of human nature and relationships to exclude others in order to define our group and sense of belonging. I don’t accept that it then follows that this should always mean we maintain an us and them mentality or that we should stop all efforts to break down barriers between groups.
It may be impossible to empathise with everyone but by at least understanding each other a little better and being willing to learn and challenge our assumptions we can try and reduce the conflict between groups.
The inconsistency of empathy
People do care, newspaper editorialists and social-media commenters granted. But they care inconsistently: grieving for victims of Brussels’ recent attacks and ignoring Yemen’s recent bombing victims; expressing outrage over ISIS rather than the much deadlier Boko Haram; mourning the death of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe while overlooking countlesshuman murder victims. There are far worthier tragedies, they wrote, than the ones that attract the most public empathy.
Almost any attempt to draw attention to some terrible event in the world elicits these complaints, as though misallocated empathy was more consequential than the terrible event itself.
The idea that we empathise inconsistently (as argued in the same article) based on a few anecdotes around Paris / Beirut and Cecil the Lion is shaky. In part the Paris / Beirut example was more about whataboutery and reflexive retweeting without research than empathy.
I would also be wary of using Twitter as a representative sample of public opinion. Despite its ubiquity in the media and online it is not used by everyone. Twitter can act as a giant echo chamber amplifying our own views back at us. More worryingly with the rise of bots it’s a place that can be gamed.
So much of the worst excesses and abuse of social media is in part a result of that echo chamber nature feeding confirmation bias but underlying that is a failure of empathy.
Where there is a failure to see things from a different perspective or appreciate the impact of words and actions it makes it very easy to subject people that don’t fit our chosen world view to horrific abuse and harassment or dismiss those experiences as oversensitive or victimhood.
Anyone that has had experience of being bullied will be familiar with the experience of meeting up with a former tormentor later on in life. The encounter may bring back a volcanic fury at all the past humiliations laced with the fear of confronting the past in such a real way.
And the outcome? Sometimes they will smile broadly, greet you as an old friend completely oblivious to the the past wounds and raw anger. Sometimes they won’t even remember.
People that bully others are unlikely to empathise with their victims. If they did they wouldn’t bully them.
Parenting and empathy
The phony ‘wars’ constructed over parenting where we are expected to take arbitrary sides for no real benefit or justification can also be seen as a failure to empathise.
“in principle, if we eliminate out-group hate completely, we may also undermine in-group love”
These civil wars don’t strengthen group unity, it fractures it by forcing members to defend their position with almost cult-like zeal.
This type of behaviour plays out in the playgrounds and where do kids learn these behaviours? From us. For the very small and during a period of adolescence there is a reduced capacity for empathy (but still room to change that). It’s part of the reason that trying to reason with toddlers and teenagers can be so maddening.
As adults we don’t have that excuse. The earlier we teach those skills by demonstrating them the better.
Building empathy – Why it matters
It doesn’t have to be difficult. The internet can help us find like minded souls. It is home to a world of stuff that can confirm and reinforce the rightness of our beliefs. This in itself is not bad if it means that we feel less alone. The hundreds of blogs on parenting, physical and mental health, race, religion and sexuality confirm that.
Equally it means that there is little excuse for not finding the same content and materials from people with different experiences and viewpoints. These may open our minds to a different perspective on a familiar topic or it may challenge what we thought was a solid value and force us to test how we feel or what we think we know.
“I’ve spent almost two decades teaching in English primary schools, which serve multiracial, multicultural, multifaith communities. I want to explore two things I have noticed.
1) Almost without exception, whenever children are asked to write a story in school, children of colour will write a story featuring white characters with ‘traditional’ English names who speak English as a first language.
2) Teachers do not discuss this phenomenon.”
“You can’t do that! Stories have to be about White people” – Media Diversified
It can help us to see continents, countries, politics and religions as less of an amorphous blob and see the range within. Failure to do so can make ownership of a mobile phone seem like damning proof that someone fleeing war or disaster is somehow less deserving of support or compassion.
It can make people who have suffered horrifying abuse and the steady water torture of daily discrimination and harassment seem as though they have bought it on themselves.
These attitudes matter. They inform the thinking of people making decisions at the highest and lowest levels from politics to the jury in a court room to the attitudes and behaviours played out in school rooms and playgrounds.
“The Representation Project, a nonprofit that challenges destructive cultural stereotypes, comes to similar sinister conclusions. Its movie, The Mask You Live In, looks at how media, among other forces, convinces boys that anything considered remotely girl-like in oneself is not only to be avoided, it’s to be reviled. The movie asks, how can a boy steeped in contempt for the feminine grow up to respect women? Answer: he can’t and won’t.
I asked Representation Project staffer Cristina Escobar what happens when boys read only books by males, about males. She said that they will be “taught that girls are objects, that they are prizes that they can win,” and that “boys go out and do things and girls sit back and wait to be rescued.”
If you are seen as an object, something to be possessed or disposed of then how can there be respect?
Data published in September 2015 showed that 5,500 sexual offences were recorded in UK schools over a three year period, including 600 rapes. A 2010 YouGov poll of 16-18 year olds found 29% of girls experienced unwanted sexual touching at school and a further 71% said they heard sexual name-calling towards girls at school daily or a few times per week.
This from an inquiry where one of the key terms of reference is:
“establishing the scale of sexual harassment and sexual violence in primary and secondary schools in the UK”
Empathy is a skill not a personality trait
Empathy is a skill. It can be taught. Even the author of the piece this blog is written in response to acknowledges this:
Research confirms that people can strengthen their moral muscles and blur the divide between in-group and out-group. Practicing meditation, for example, can increase empathy, improving people’s ability to decode emotions from people’s facial expressions1 and making them more likely to offer a chair2 to someone with crutches. Simply increasing people’s beliefs in the malleability of empathy increases the empathy they express toward ideologically and racially dissimilar others.3 And when all else fails, people respond to financial gain. My co-authors and I have shown that introducing monetary incentives for accurate perspective-taking increased Democrats’ and Republicans’ ability to understand each other and to believe that political resolutions were possible.4
So does the author of this blog on teaching doctor’s empathy.
“Unlike sympathy, which is defined as feeling sorry for another person, clinical empathy is the ability to stand in a patient’s shoes and to convey an understanding of the patient’s situation as well as the desire to help.”
It’s more than some wispy insubstantial fluffy cloud of touchy feelyness. Its application in medicine can make a huge difference.
“Studies have linked empathy to greater patient satisfaction, better outcomes, decreased physician burnout, and a lower risk of malpractice suits and errors.”
Thanks to the hundreds of blogs on this subject (see Leigh Kendall’s for one of many horrible examples) we can see the impact of absent empathy.
It’s not all or nothing
“The endpoint of the liberal humanitarian project, which is universal empathy, would mean no boundary between in-group and out-group”
It is not about universal empathy for all. That is not the end game. It’s about having more empathy and being willing to accept that not every opposing view point is a personal threat. It’s about looking for the human stories behind headlines and hysterical sound bites.
It’s not sympathy. It involves listening to others rather than rushing in with ‘but…’ and our tuppence worth. Conflict often emerges out of frustration at not being listened to. It goes both ways, If we want people to listen to us we need to be prepared to listen too.
“Empathy draws our attention toward particular targets, and whether that target represents the underprivileged, blood relatives, refugees from a distant country, or players on a sports team, those targets obscure our attention from other equally (or more) deserving ones.”
Empathy is more than feeling bad at a distant terror or natural disaster or suffering. That’s more sympathy. Real empathy can lead to change, to do more than wring our hands or shake our heads wearily.
“we need to abandon an idealized cultural sensitivity that gives all moral values equal importance.”
Having more empathy doesn’t mean giving all moral values equal standing. It would take a near suicidal devotion to the cause to extend empathy to the person trying to kill you (although some hostage negotiations involve exactly that).
[F]ull compassion requires inhibitory control (regulating our own emotions to distinguish them from another person’s emotions), self-reflection, externally focused attention, and recognition of another person’s suffering. These faculties, too, can tire.
This has the odd implication that hate and anger isn’t tiring. It’s also insulting to suggest that a valid reason not to consider someone else’s position or suffering is because it’s oh so tiring. Not everyone has the luxury of being able to walk away.
If we have to go for absolutes (and hopefully after reading this you’ll see that I’m arguingh we don’t!) I would prefer the potential of an infinite capacity for compassion than for hate.