The misadventures of empathy

The misadventures of empathy

The call for collective empathy is prevalent among rightfully concerned people. A friend recently suggested to me that if everyone consciously chose to be more empathetic, the world’s increasingly distressing sociopolitical issues would quickly dwindle. Our president possesses a similar mindset. At one point, President Obama handpicked empathy as the primary quality he searches for in potential Supreme Court Justices. To many, empathy is the ideal cure for a wounded social machine, similar to how pickle juice is the ideal remedy for a muscle cramp. If this is indeed true, it cannot be a small number of people who are not capable of exercising empathy. It must be a sufficient quantity to the extent that our glaring societal deformities would not exist if these people were capable of being empathetic to the extent that others claim they are not.

It matters, then, what empathy is and what it is not. While it is certainly impossible for everyone to share a dictionary, that does not excuse trumpeting foolishly  optimistic fantasies through the medium of a word with a clear definition. Our English word is rooted in the German “einfà¼hlung,” coined in the late 19th century by Robert Vischer in his dissertation on aesthetics. He intended for it to explore a human’s ability to feel the emotions that an artist had hoped to convey through a particular painting, sculpture or song. Additionally, he considered it a means for verbalizing the emotive response any inanimate object evokes. Over time, the capacity for sharing another human’s mindset was added to its definition. The Cambridge dictionary now defines it as “the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like in that person’s situation.”

So when ABC news averred that Mr. Obama “beat [Mitt Romney] on empathy,” a notable reason for his victory in the 2012 election, they insinuated that empathy is a personal characteristic that is held in high esteem by the American public, and that President Obama exemplifies this characteristic to a higher extent than Mr. Romney. And based on the election results, a fair amount of people likely agree with ABC.

Now, sentiments are nice. They are often, however, self-pleasuring and not necessarily beneficial, especially with regards to public matters. That is, good intentions do not necessarily translate into good results (see: Venezuela). I have no doubt that it feels good to believe oneself to be more empathetic then another. Deep insights such as this tidbit from George H. Lewis of the Huffington Post can also be morally delicious. He said, “Empathy is the cosmic glue that holds us together, without this we don’t have a civilization. We are all facets of the same jewel, which we call the Universe.”

But does empathy truly deserve the acclaim? Is it the key to the kingdom of Arcadia? I’m not so sure.

The development of the Empathy Epoch coincidentally corresponds with the development of the Age of Moral Relativism. People today fear a universal moral code because its existence implies a supernatural moral commander who deserves subservience; additionally, on a more basic level, we detest the concept of holding our fellow man accountable for his actions. Universal empathy has become the ideal substitute to the now antiquated Judeo-Christian law. But of course, like every purely human endeavor, it is not without its limits. Studies have demonstrated these limits in ways that can be quite revealing as to humanity’s nature in general. For example, scientists concluded that people innately empathize more readily with people who look like them or are particularly good-looking.

We subconsciously succumb to the “identifiable victim effect,” sending a thoughtful, get-well-soon card to the little girl on the news slowly getting the life sucked out of her by cancer, but never giving much thought, time or money to the millions of people across the world suffering from daily hunger. In the 1970’s researchers conducted an interesting social experiment. They placed a dime in a phone booth, and 87% of those who found the dime consequently offered to help a person (part of the experiment) who dropped a stack of papers nearby. Only 4% of those who did not find the dime stopped to help the person who had dropped her papers. Perhaps most notably, once a potential empathetic action infringes on the unmistakable threshold of natural self-interest we each possess, we rarely act on it. Like practically every other quality of person’s moral complex, one’s capacity for empathy is substantively flawed.

Our genetic makeup is one thing. Indeed, is it not illogical for some to assert that we must escape nature’s restrictions in order to achieve a level of empathy that will dramatically improve the world as a whole? How can we? And more importantly, why should we? No one believes empathy to be wrong. It is a quality, or perhaps more precisely, a skill, that is quite helpful in assessing a person’s mental state “” best exemplified in field of psychology. But, as psychologist Carl Rogers notes, it is a “demanding and strong complex,” that is ultimately achieved and implemented in order to understand [a patient’s] condition. Psychologist Lauren Wispé put it this way: “In empathy, the self is the vehicle for understanding, and it never loses its identity. . . . The object of empathy is understanding. The object of sympathy is the other person’s well-being.”

This quote drives at the heart of the empathy issue as a universal cure all. When empathy motivates the layman’s actions, those actions are often misguided and irrational, and never evenly disseminated. By empathizing with someone in a truly deplorable situation, the wrong decision can easily be made. Often, a person’s background and current outlook are extremely detrimental to their decision-making process. Joining them in their delusion is not the best way to help them. In fact, it commonly provides social reinforcement to decisions that are typically harmful to the self and society as a whole.

Instead, active sympathy is a more reasonable approach. Contrary to popular belief, empathy is not the upgraded version of sympathy. We have sympathy when we have great pity on someone because of his or her misfortunate. Sympathy, unlike empathy, is concerned with the person’s ultimate outcome, not their present feelings. Most importantly, for the sake of America’s well-being as well as that of the larger world’s, we must recognize empathy for the distraction it has become. Instead of concentrating efforts on the distorted idea supporting a fallible concept in collective empathy, we should focus on better understanding what truly divides us “” the perspectives that make us different, and in some cases, lead to disparaging, hate-filled speech and actions. Only through a mature, clear dialogue that does not play on trivial emotions will we reach the level of mutual respect and reverence that we seek.