Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., March 6, 7 or 8
Empathy is generally understood to be openness to the Other and more, when people identify with, understand and share others’ situations, to “sense the hurt or the pleasure of another,” as psychologist Carl Rogers said, “as if [you] are hurt or pleased.” In the 17th century, philosopher Thomas Hobbes warned of a society “of every man, against every man” and suggested that government might be an effective limit on the impulses of sometimes self-centered humans. A century later, economist Adam Smith was more optimistic, saying that civilization benefits from self-control if people empathize with each other.
Empathy is critical: feeling others’ needs, pains and joys helps individuals and societies hold together, and it helps victims get by and species survive. Empathy can mean disagreements shared in respectful ways, outright teamwork, or discoveries about Others no longer held apart. We may empathize with needy neighbors and struggling co-workers, but also frazzled managers and even a spoiled former rich kid drifting from bullying to authoritarianism. We can care about our fellow citizens, whether victims or villains, participants or witnesses, taxpayers or immigrants, “us” and “them” – Others.
Psychologist William McDougall in the early 1900s said humans’ capacity to empathize is not learned but hard-wired into us. More recently, primatologist Frans de Waal wrote that our distress at the sight of another’s pain is “an impulse over which we exert no control: It grabs us instantaneously, like a reflex.”
We instinctively empathize and feel common ground, in sports or church, with Kiwanis or the VFW, in checkout lines or union meetings. But empathy needs nurturing.
Why? Some see a decline of empathy. Progressive evangelical Christian Jim Wallis in Sojourners said, “Our country has developed a very large empathy deficit [and] the unprecedented toxicity of the rhetoric that came from Donald Trump emboldened many of his supporters to become vile and even violent.”
Further, a University of Michigan study showed that young adults today are not as empathetic as previous generations. Sara Konrath, a researcher at Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, said, "College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait."
The reasons could be the volume and types of data flooding our senses. Konrath said, "The average American now is exposed to three times as much non-work-related information.” Add a hyper-competitive atmosphere and inflated expectations of success – arguably promoted by celebrity reality shows – and the results work against empathizing with Others.
A decline in empathy may also include an unconscious acceptance of “social Darwinism,” a cutthroat economic version of naturalist Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection that “only the strongest survive,” so … anything goes. Summarized by physician Wes Ulm in Democracy magazine, social Darwinism can reward unscrupulous behavior, equate profits to created wealth, stifle criticism and creativity, treat people like commodities, and promote the short-term over the long-term.
However, Ulm echoes McDougall: “In recent years, work in both the biological and social sciences has indicated that traits like compassion and empathy are elemental to the wiring of animal nervous systems. Our [Social Darwinism] system’s zero-sum adversarialism has reached a disastrous endpoint, suffocated by ideological polarization, fruitless partisan bickering, and the iron grip of moneyed interests.”
Remaining indifferent permits wickedness to flourish, according to British novelist J.K. Rowling.
“Those who choose not to empathize enable real monsters,” said the author of the Harry Potter books. “For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.”
Without empathy, even the well-meaning and well-informed can be cut off from each other, and people are reduced too closely to Hobbes’ dark vision, “where every man is enemy to every man. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no culture, no knowledge, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
With empathy, there can be civil resistance, progress and a better life.
“Empathy can only be accomplished through the forging of authentic relationships between people of different races, classes, gender, sexual orientations and political views,” Wallis said.
[PICTURED: Graphic from psychology.BINUS university.ac.id]