Wednesday July 06, 2022

A crisis of empathy

March 14, 2018

Empathy entails the human capacity to feel and understand other people’s emotions and think from their perspective. Although empathy is a natural and automated response, it is limited to those we consider to be one of us.

To those who are outside this circle, humans often display its opposing capacity: apathy. From Buddhism to Islam and from Athens to Jerusalem, moral teachings have valued empathy and guarded against apathy. Without empathy, the edifice of ethics and human relations as a whole is inconceivable. And yet, we seem to suffer from a crisis of empathy at the collective level. The violence, intolerance and exploitation that we experience requires a conscious and sustained effort to nurture empathy in the individual and national psyche.

There are two intertwined dimensions of empathy: affective and cognitive. The affective dimension involves the ability to recognise and respond to the emotions of others. This inherent capacity helps us feel the pain of others and motivates us to try to alleviate it. The cognitive dimension is about understanding another person’s perspective, social situation and needs at the intellectual level. It is a conscious and deliberative process. These dimensions can collectively ensure that our empathetic response is calibrated in the best interests of those whom we wish to help.

Lack of empathy or apathy is the disconnect with people considered to be the ‘other’ – ie, any individual or group that is considered to be ‘not one of us’. This classification of ‘us versus them’ has an evolutionary basis since the drive to identify with those whom we come to see as being similar to us has a bearing on survival.

Today, this ‘self-other dichotomy’ is frequently put to injurious use by forces that thrive on othering people by negating the fact that all of us – particularly in the modern world – have multiple identity markers. Instead, a singular identity marker is posited, thereby reducing the ‘other’ to a homogenous identity and motive. Two people may share a great deal in common. But in the process of othering each other, they reduce one another to a single ethnic, national or religious identity, creating a wide gulf. This image of the ‘other’ is then available for many projections – snatching jobs, warmongering, polluting the ‘pure culture’ and conspiring against national interests. Such blame projection often justifies apathy, ill-treatment and bigotry.

Over the decades, the process of othering has gained momentum in Pakistan. Suicide bombers who detonate themselves in schools, markets, mosques and hospitals display an unimaginable degree of apathy. School curriculum and textbooks help to promote otherness rather than inclusiveness. Hate campaigns in the media are common. The list of ‘the other’ is dynamic and diverse and can include anyone – Hindus and Ahmadi, Pakhtuns and Mohajir, the powerful West or a humble polio vaccination worker.

The fact that this crisis of empathy needs attention is widely acknowledged. However, we must ask whether empathy is even possible. Can we really put ourselves in another person’s shoes? After all, we have direct access only to our own mental states. We have no direct access to other people’s minds. So, how do we know that those we consider to be ‘others’ are not robots or zombies, as it is often provocatively put? If others do not have an inner life, the idea of empathy makes no sense.

Responses to this problem, such as analogical inference, state that since ‘others’ behave in a similar manner to us in many situations, we can infer that they too have emotions, beliefs and feelings that are similar to ours. None of these responses provide an irrefutable justification. There is no argument justifying our belief that other people have minds. And yet, the belief in other minds is so central to our identity, selfhood and everyday life that nobody doubts it. It seems that we are justified, at least in practical terms, to assume that other people have an inner life of which we can make sense – if not fully, then enough to share a common humanity while being different.

Empathy is innate but not fixed. It can also be fostered, particularly the cognitive dimension. This requires us to expand the circle of those whom we identify with and consider to be just like us. To do that, the easiest and most important steps can be taken within a family. How we behave towards children and treat others contribute to the ways our children fashion their emotions and thoughts towards the people they interact with. Small gestures matter. Our response to a five-year-old struggling to tie his/her shoe laces while we are getting late for a party will either convey empathy or apathy.

Schools can shape a child’s moral sensitivities as well. Since we have seen several cases of well-educated young people carrying out acts of violence, the role of educational institutions in nurturing empathy cannot be emphasised enough. In this context, the behaviour of adults also plays a key role.

Much can be done through the process of teaching and learning as well to foster empathy. As empathy is rooted in the human imagination, literature – with its evocative and symbolic language – is particularly suited in this regard. By conveying the moral struggles, vulnerabilities and emotions of characters, literature can provide young people access to the thoughts, feeling and beliefs of other people, including those who are not part of the culture that a child grows up in.

This helps young people understand the people they interact with in everyday life. Finally, our schools have become a bastion of a overly competitive spirit. This must be redressed by valuing cooperation. Competition has its own place in our lives. But it must not be allowed to become the defining feature of our individual or collective life.

The media, through its myriad and ubiquitous forms, has an equally important role to play in fostering empathy. Images, narratives and storylines are consciously choreographed to affect the attitudes of viewers. In some situations, this serves to create empathy for victims. But it has increasingly become a divisive force that portrays certain groups as the eternal other.

It is time we reflect upon ways in which individuals and groups are represented in print, onscreen and the virtual world. This does not involve making any compromises on journalistic responsibilities. Instead, it requires a stronger adherence to these responsibilities in explaining the contextual and historical factors that affect news items, and enabling cognitive empathy.

‘Ubuntu’, a word in Nguni Bantu, means ‘I am because you are’. It conveys the sense that “my humanity is inextricably bound up in what is yours”. Zainab’s cries may not have moved her killer. But they have affected many others in the country who feel connected to her and resulted in a moral outrage that remains strong even weeks after the incident.

The circle of such sensitive and conscientious people needs to be expanded to have the desired administrative and legal effect in deterring such crimes. For several decades, we have collectively created conditions that have led to a crisis of empathy. It is time to reverse it.

The writer is the director of aresearch centre at the Institute of Education, University College London.