Tuesday, 20 December 2016

How 'empathy' became a weapon we use against others

By Britt Peterson, Published The Straits Times, 19 Dec 2016

As long as we've had the word "empathy", it's been seen as an essentially positive thing, like kindness. It's the idea of putting yourself in someone else's shoes - intuiting the thoughts and feelings of another person and attempting to do something about it.

Several past Democratic presidential candidates have basically campaigned on empathy. US President Barack Obama talked about an "empathy deficit" among the American people that needed to be filled by attention to those in need.

Over this past election season, however, the concept of empathy has become rather more complicated. Despite coming from an extremely different background from the white working-class voters who made up his base, President-elect Donald Trump connected with them on a gut level while displaying little empathy for anyone else. Mr Trump tugged on the strings of his supporters' empathy for highly effective rhetorical purpose.

This weaponisation of empathy has led to a flurry of questions about whether the concept is still the universal good we all once assumed.

As Yale psychologist Paul Bloom writes in his recent book Against Empathy, the sentiment focuses us on concrete examples rather than the abstract needs. Similarly, studies show that we're much better equipped to feel for someone who looks like us than someone who doesn't.

It also makes it hard for us to evaluate whether the people we feel for actually need our help. For example, millions of Trump supporters watching the Republican National Convention came away deeply concerned - for empathic, and yet still irrational reasons - over the victims of murderous illegal immigrants. No matter that these murders and drink-driving incidents were statistically insignificant. "You don't often hear Donald Trump and empathy in the same sentence, but he was extraordinarily adroit at using empathy," Dr Bloom says.

"Empathy" has often been tossed around in the month since the election as a panacea to heal the country's wounds. And yet in this context as well, it's not clear empathy would be an entirely positive force. As journalist Amanda Hess pointed out recently in the New York Times magazine, empathy has become a Silicon Valley buzzword that describes an understanding of user experience, and the political meaning is very similar. We empathise with someone, frequently, because we want to change his or her mind - whether that person is an undecided voter, a potential customer or a first date.

But the attempt to reach out in a fundamentally hostile situation can sometimes just magnify hostility, said Dr Adam Galinsky, a social psychologist at the Columbia Business School who has studied perspective-taking (empathy's cognitive cousin - trying to understand the thoughts, rather than the emotions, of another person).

"Normally when we take the perspective of someone, try to understand where they're coming from, it leads to more cooperation," he said. "But when you're in a very competitive or hostile relationship... now the perspective you're taking is really this jaundiced or corrupted view."

Looking ahead to the impending four years of Trump's presidency, there's also the practical question of empathy exhaustion. In a world where global and local threats suddenly feel much more imminent and visible and where we are also being asked to reach across the political spectrum and empathise with those who voted differently from us, there's a solid chance of our brains simply fritzing under the mega-load of the world's emotional chaos.

Dr Bloom, the empathy doubter, counsels that people don't need empathy, with its high "emotional toll", to make moral choices in these situations.

Empathy implies a certain arrogance: the idea that someone can fully enter into the life of a very different person, that, for instance, a white person who grew up under privileged circumstances could know exactly what it feels like to be a black victim of police brutality. But, he said: "I don't have to know what it's like to be the victim of sexism or racism to know that it's wrong."

Still, if we choose empathy, however overwhelming the experience of letting in the needs of others can be, there are ways to manage it. Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki has interviewed a number of ER doctors and social workers, who, he said, "deeply suffer from their empathic relationship", although their patients benefit.

Empathy is a tool that requires practice and work, he said. The ability to expand it beyond our immediate circle, to exercise it under extraordinary circumstances and then to turn it off when we need to rest, may not come naturally to everyone. But it can be learnt.

"People can control their empathy," he said - and if we're to survive together in a more complicated, more frightening world, we may have no choice but to teach ourselves how.


No comments:

Post a Comment