A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post in which I encouraged people to choose life, love and, amongst other things, empathy. I have always seen empathy as one of the more difficult human traits to show, and to feel as well. It requires a sort of trade-off and giving up. But when it works, empathy enhances the human experience.
When it works…
A few days after I wrote that post I read an interview in the magazine New Humanist. The interview was conducted by writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik. The interviewee was Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University. The subject? Paul’s latest book, Against Empathy. Oh, dear.
The capacity to imagine ourselves in another person’s place and understand their feelings is a powerful tool for social and political change. What could be wrong with that?
A lot, if the intentions are not clear. Paul Bloom dispels some of the myths surrounding empathy and in the process produces a cogent argument as to why this very human trait is somewhat overrated. The empathy in Paul’s sights is not the general type, like identifying oneself with another person’s plight. His beef is rather with those who believe they are feeling what other people are feeling.
The extensive checklist Paul presents as evidence to back up his thinking starts with the Syrian child washed up ashore in 2015 and whose photo caused much anger and revulsion around the world. However, despite this outpouring of grief, the situation for refugees arriving in Europe has not improved. In fact, it has actually got worse. The reason, according to Mr Bloom, is that while we can empathise with an innocent child caught up in a deadly conflict like the Syrian one, we show less compassion towards an adult who, in our view, can fend for her or himself.
This leads us to Paul’s second conclusion: empathy is biased. Once I got over my initial shock, I was able to see his point and I found myself nodding in agreement. Because it is almost nigh on impossible to empathise with every single person in the world, We discriminate against those who deserve our empathy and those who do not. Into that selection go our prejudices and judgments.
I must stress at this point that although the tone of Paul Bloom’s theory might come across as negative, the examples he gives are not. Like many human traits, empathy is triggered off unconsciously and spontaneously. It is also influenced by external factors such as, culture, upbringing and education.
When Bob “give us yer f*****g money” Geldoff organised the first Live Aid concert to raise funds for the African famine in Ethiopia he did not invite any African musicians. He managed to rope in the likes of Queen and Status Quo but there was no Miriam Makeba or Hugh Masekela. Personally I have no problem with him empathising with the plight of that African nation; it is the lack of rational thinking that made me cross. You sit at a table to plan out the concert and you decide to leave African musicians out of a concert on behalf of an African nation? This approach to what I would call “selective empathy” is what makes us feel more compassionate towards victims of terrorism in a European nation than towards those killed by a suicide bomber in a packed market in Bagdad or Kabul.
One of the reasons why this happens is that many western countries still operate with a colonial mindset. I have had the misfortune of being at the receiving end of this most annoying behaviour. Whether you sit on the left or the right of the political spectrum the odds are that your empathy-led charitable act will be rooted in attitudes that have long preceded you and you might not even recognise as yours at all.
Solidarity campaigns, fund-raising initiatives. These are all well-intentioned, practical ways to support those in distress. However, it is not ungrateful to ask for some long-term vision. Who will benefit more from that project, the person you are trying to help or you? Many times programmes aimed at alleviating the suffering of a particular community in a war-torn country backfire because the focus is on areas where resources are not really needed. Yet, because empathy is the main driver in the project we tend to stop using our brain and start using our heart instead. Just to clarify, there is nothing wrong with using our heart when it comes to supporting those most in need. But our brain also is a fundamental part in the process. So, I will rephrase what I wrote two weeks ago: choose empathy, but also choose using your brain.