On Empathy

A friend of mine, who on the whole is a wonderful, good-hearted person, voiced a rather ugly opinion of people who frequented the local Walmart.  He made a comment about how much in-breeding must be going on in the area.  Others have wondered what my views about the same people might be, given that I am a frequent critic of others.  What they have failed to understand is that my criticisms are focused on social justice and supposedly intelligent people consistently showing their ignorance.

What do I see when I go to the Walmart where I live?  First of all, I wish I didn’t have to shop there because of the company’s approach to its employees and suppliers, but it is the only place I can find a few of the items I need on a regular basis.  As for the people, I see a mixed bag.  I see middle class people taking advantage of the company’s approach to slave labor overseas and poverty-level wages at home.  But the majority of people there, both employees and the working class people who really must shop there, are an entirely different thing altogether.  I see people beaten down by an economic system that devalues their work and their worth as sentient beings.  I see people forced to live on the periphery of society, robbed of their fair share of the wealth produced by their labor by parasitic executives, corporations, and their bought politicians.  When I go into Walmart, I see the epitome of the failure of capitalism to live up to the mythologized hype of its disciples as a “leveling, democratizing force for good”.

The source for my views is part logic and part emotion.  An economic system that perpetuates such inequality will not survive for long, and its death is usually violent.  Then there is the emotional side: empathy for those who are in some way suffering, even if they do not realize the true source of their predicament.  Empathy is not simply the ability to feel sorry for others and the situation they may be in.  That is sympathy.  Empathy is much more than that.  It is feeling their pain in a very real, physical, and psychological sense.  It is understanding that the conditions they are facing can seem insurmountable from their perspective.  It is knowing that their perception of their reality is unique, a result of the genes they inherited from their parents, the experiences life has brought them up to this point,  and the individual chemistry of their brains.  It is recognizing their individual sentient existence, both with its similarities and differences to yourself.  And possibly most importantly, you have to have this capacity with people who are very different from yourself, of other ethnicities, gender identification, religious persuasion, and sexual orientation.

My son and I independently came to the same conclusion about the cause of many of our society’s problems:  a lack of empathy.  His approach is that people need to look inside themselves, come to recognize who they are through careful self reflection, and then they will see themselves reflected in others and able to be more empathetic.  My approach is almost the polar opposite.  Life experience has shown me that most people lack the ability for real self-reflection, living lives of self-denial.  To me, these people will look inward and self-justify their ongoing prejudices and hate.  I believe people should truly look at others as individuals, as independent sentient beings who face their own trials and tribulations while they walk a path both similar and dissimilar to our own.  When we come to see others as individuals facing unique challenges and a social system that treats us differently based on race, ethnicity, gender identification, sexual orientation, and religious persuasion then we can step away from judging them based on our prejudices.  We can change ourselves and the social structures that value some more than others.

Either approach is probably valid, in its own way, and may be complementary.  As we are all individuals facing our own unique path, perhaps both work in their own ways.  There are likely many other approaches to the same goals.  One approach that is unlikely to consistently lead to those goals is religion.  Religion usually divides us.  It promotes tribal thinking.  It focuses on defining “us” and “them”.  “We” are chosen and will live in some eternal paradise in a life after death while “they” are heathens (or worse, apostates) and will never know the “love” of our “god”.  For example, the actual teachings of Yashua bar Yosef (Jesus, for those who don’t know his real name) promoted understanding, love, and acceptance of the “other”, but you would never guess it from the beliefs and actions of many who profess to “follow” him.  When the leader of the largest denomination of his followers tries to actually promote those teachings in the best traditions of the religion and Catholic teachings, he is criticized by conservatives and fundamentalists who prefer to maintain their privileged positions in society and their sense of superiority.  Their reactions speak to the challenges we face as a species if we are going to transcend our baser instincts and really see the value in other sentient beings.  I firmly believe our survival as a species depends on it.

I have consistently used “sentient being” throughout this post instead of “human being”.  I do not believe the value of an individual is limited to the human species.  There are other species who have self-awareness and a sense of self on this planet.  Like it or not, and if we do not destroy ourselves before our technology reaches this level, but we will someday create human clones and mechanical, artificial intelligence.  Will they be less worthy of respect as sentient beings because their creation did not come from sexual reproduction or because they are silicon-based?  And despite the vast expanse between star systems, I am sure we will someday encounter extraterrestrial sentient beings who are also worthy of respect as individuals.  We should prepare ourselves and our society now for these eventualities…again, if we don’t destroy ourselves first.