EMPATHY (a few thoughts)

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another persons place.  Those who walk among us who are incapable, through neurological damage or deficit, of putting themselves in the place of another are usually referred to as sociopaths.  They are easy to detect, but, we refrain from any real effort to detect them because we, as a culture, believe that animal torturers and mass murderers (not to mention politicians) have the right to live freely and conduct their lives and business as they see fit right up to the time they are caught in the act of deeds that make us all exclaim… “That person isn’t human.”

Well, they weren’t fully human, in the sense most of us understand it, LONG before the rows of buried bodies show up in their basement.  We just don’t want to know it because we believe in that much debated attribute that all humans are supposedly endowed with called free will.  To detect a sociopath or a psychopath in Kindergarden throws a monkey wrench into the workings of how we define ourselves.  It would mean that we are not totally responsible for our actions.  It would diminish us in our own eyes and none of us are up for that.  Sitting a 5 year old down to a series of photographic slides while measuring his/her galvanic skin response just can’t be sanctioned.  Showing him/her a series of slides that are benign in nature with just a few pictures of someone cutting the tails off puppy dogs, or hurting another person, and noticing that he or she registers no change on the equipment would forever mark that child as “not fully human” and condemn them to a life of perpetual surveillance and scrutiny.  We much prefer to keep our claims to free will in tact and learn that “Little Jimmy” was fond of nailing cats to trees long before he embarked on a career of kidnapping children and torturing them to death.

But, there is a lot more to this empathy business than that.

Even those of us with a full compliment of the neurons that make up the place in our brains where empathy is said to reside, it seems, only apply it selectively and even that appears to be done subconsciously.  In point of fact hundreds of experiments have been conducted on people to measure the empathy they feel for other humans.  What we have learned is that we have no problem putting ourselves in the place of others PROVIDED we see them as agreeing with us and being, as it were, a member of our group.

Scientists have purposely put people together in task orientated, goal directed groups.  They have pitted them against other groups made up of other individuals with differing beliefs and goals.  They have set up experimental situations where one person asks a question of another and has the ability to direct a mild electric shock to the person answering the questions if their response is incorrect.  The level of shock (1 to 10… [10] being quite painful) is at the total discretion of the questioner.

Time and time again, without fail, scientists have observed that the questioners will deliver a more painful shock to people not of their group and a much milder shock to people that are.  Experiments like this have been repeated hundreds of times and always seem to demonstrate our inherent tribal nature when it comes to our dealings with other people.  We can, essentially, empathize with people who we perceive as “being and believing” as we do, but, subconsciously, we are simply not pre-wired to grant those we see as “different” the same level of humanness.  We may WANT to because we see ourselves as good and compassionate people, but, our neurology betrays us in little ways and, sometimes, in very big ways.

For reasons I feel no desire to explain I thought, in the light of this being an election year and the horrible things we all read about, or see in the news, it might be a good idea for us all to dwell upon the concept of empathy.  It might be wise to understand that those we perceive as different from ourselves also must see us as different.  We can expect them to subconsciously deal with us as humans do.  What I’m trying to say is…. It shouldn’t come as a shock.

(Any thoughts?)



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2 responses to “EMPATHY (a few thoughts)

  1. Art Fern

    OK, here’s what blocks empathy: our consumerist, marketing oriented society. It has taught us to see each other as commodities, as a brand, rather than as a living breathing human. We, as a society, tend to see each other as objects and, consciously or subconsciously, play into that ethic. We tend to value the norms and standards put out there by society. In an interview in New York Magazine, Martin Amis mentions pornography and talks about how so much of it is homemade these days and includes a money shot, the ubiquitous facial. He actually interviewed porn stars for an article (book?) and asked one of them for an estimate of how many of her peers liked it. The answer was about 5%. Yet many homemade pornos feature the procedure. Why? Because it’s in the porn that the home movie makers model themselves after so they think it’s required. Put a camera on any household and, in just a little while, you’ll see behavior like you’d see on almost any reality show because that’s the way our society says people should behave while on camera. It’s all about the desensitizing, dehumanizing marketing, advertising and relentless, never-ending media exposure that’s designed to turn us all into good little spenders and consumers. We’re not doing our patriotic duty unless we fulfill that role. If it’s all about the consumer goods and how we “brand” ourselves, there’s no room for empathy. When someone “falls”, it’s more about the juicy story we enjoy for it’s entertainment value than any consideration that this person has had a problem. Sure, once in awhile, something so heinous (See: Aurora CO shooting), cuts thru the clutter and makes us human again for a little bit but even there, within minutes, not hours, the cable news networks had branded the story (CNN: “Massacre at the Movies”…alliteration strikes again), making it a commodity, just a part of the news cycle that they would make some money from (ratings) for awhile. And I totally understand and agree about how we stay within our clans or tribal groups. I’ve heard about this research, too. I think this is also why little kids will turn on the kid with the too-thick glasses or the brace on their leg. It’s about the herding instinct to cut the weak ones out of the pack, the DNA imperative to try to kill off the ones that endanger the group with their faulty genes.

    Either all that or it’s the flouride in the water. And the CIA.

    I have to go make tomorrow’s tinfoil hat now. And take my SOMA.

  2. When was the last time you watched Rollerball? The 1975 original?

    I enjoyed it then… but NOW it is absolutely right on the money for how we are heading. Jonathan E. went on to become “Sonny” of course. In case you haven’t heard they hit Sonny on the causeway. We are going to the mattresses. This kind of thing has to happen every 10 years or so. Cleans out all the bad blood.

    Will we see you at Worship Service tomorrow?

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