Saturday, November 21, 2009

How Not to Foster Empathy

This may sound paradoxical, but I believe that the contemporary emphasis on "celebrating diversity" actually leads us to dehumanize those who are different from ourselves and makes it easier for us to ignore their suffering.

We are moved to want to help others primarily by a feeling of empathy, the ability to feel what others are feeling when they hurt. It's much easier to persuade oneself, or one's associates, to help hungry, orphaned children in the third world if we have empathy for them than if we don't.

We have empathy for people primarily because we are able to project our responses to life's challenges onto them. We assume that the way we feel when we are insulted, when we've lost a loved one, when we are threatened, when we suffer, is very much the same as others feel in similar situations. This intuition, however, is based on the assumption we hold that others are "put together" pretty much just like us - that we all think alike, feel alike, and see life much the same way.

Since the 1960s, however, there has been an effort on the part of some to eradicate this confidence that we are all very much alike. We've been told that if we are a man we don't know what it's like to be a woman, if we're white we don't know what it's like to be black, if we're economically comfortable we don't know what it's like to be poor. We're told that others are fundamentally different from us, they see the world differently, they don't share our perspectives, values, or feelings about things, and so on.

Very well, but the problem is that from here it is but a short step to thinking that the other doesn't really feel the way I feel, doesn't really respond to the blows that life delivers the way I do.

When we start to think this way, our empathy for the other begins to evaporate and our sympathy begins to diminish. It becomes easier to turn our back on his suffering because, we rationalize, his suffering is not what we would experience were we in similar circumstances. When we reach the point where it becomes easier to minimize the other's pain in our own mind then we have essentially dehumanized him.

So far from celebrating the things that make us different we need to affirm over and over the things that make us alike. We need to celebrate not our differences but our commonalities. We should focus on strengthening the bonds of empathy that we should feel for all of God's creatures but which are weakened by the social balkanization that results from emphasizing our differences. Cultural variety is colorful and enriching. Dividing people into "us" and "them," however, is corrosive to our ability to experience empathy.


Palin Fixation

I admit that I'm baffled by the media's obsession with Sarah Palin and their determination to smack her every chance they get. You can't turn on the television without seeing some talking head snidely remarking on Palin's various alleged inadequacies. It has gotten to the point where I think Palin is almost the media's Emmanuel Goldstein toward whom the feel duty-bound to direct their daily Five Minutes Hate (see Orwell's 1984). It's like a kind of liberal Tourette's syndrome that compels them to feel contempt and blurt out disparagements whether there's any rational reason for them or not. It'd be amusing were it not so pathetic since Palin is not a candidate, she holds no elective office, she's not an "extremist," she doesn't hate anyone and yet the lefty media never pass up an opportunity to throw a pie in her face with a sneer on theirs.

Some, though, are breaking out of this apparent mob psychology and are scratching their heads wondering what on earth has precipitated the hostility and personal venom that, like a nest of spitting cobras, so many commentators direct her way.

One such is David Harsanyi of the Denver Post. writes:

...believe it or not, one can (as I do) admire Palin's charisma and roots, appreciate her dissent on the policy experiments brainy folks in Washington are cooking up and at the same time believe she has no business running for president in 2012.

In fact, all you haters out there force me to root for her.

There's nothing wrong, for instance, with The Associated Press assigning a crack team of investigative journalists to sift through every word of Palin's book, "Going Rogue" (HarperCollins, November 2009) for inaccuracies. You only wish similarly methodical muckraking was applied to President Barack Obama's two self-aggrandizing tomes - or even the health care or cap and trade bills, for that matter.

The widely read blogger and purveyor of all truth, Andrew Sullivan, was impelled to blog 17 times on the subject of Palin on the same day Americans learned that the Obama administration awarded $6.7 billion in stimulus money to non-existent congressional districts - which did not merit a single mention. To see what is in front of one's nose demands a constant struggle, I guess.

And it's not just bloggers. What choice do media outlets have but to provide comprehensive coverage of pistachio salesman and Playgirl-posing Levi Johnston, doltish erstwhile father of Palin's grandchild, a man whose only discernible talent is the possession of operational sperm and the ability to humiliate the former vice presidential nominee?

And how could a major magazine like Newsweek be expected to use a cover photo of Palin campaigning or spending time with her Down syndrome child when editors could simply borrow a shot of the 45-year-old mother of five decked out in her exercise tights - nudge nudge, wink wink - from a Runners World piece and slap the headline "How Do You Solve A Problem Like Sarah?" onto it?

There's more on the Left's Palin fixation at the link. Meanwhile, all you psychology majors out there who are looking for an idea for a research project might want to consider examining what it is about Sarah Palin that drives liberals into a frenzy that serves only to make them look simultaneously both mean and stupid.