BARRIERS TO EMPATHY
BARRIERS TO EMPATHY
Why do we find it so hard to really care about each other? Why does modern American society lack empathy?
My spouse and I recently attended a lecture given by a skilled naturalist that included discussion about barriers to empathy. What factors hinder us from being caring, empathetic, and compassionate towards other creatures? Why are spiders detested and dolphins beloved?
As she was lecturing, it struck me that much of the same information applies to how we view one another as humans. Why is there so much anti-immigrant rhetoric? Why are those of opposing political views seen as enemies? Why is there racism? Homophobia? Antisemitism? Islamophobia? Misogyny?
Often, the same things that have become barriers to animal empathy are barriers to human empathy. They include:
- Cultural stigma restricts empathy. In some areas, snakes are considered bad or dangerous, even though most are highly beneficial. Similarly, our human culture sometimes stigmatizes the homeless panhandler as a scam artist, the poor person as lazy, the queer person as perverted, the African American man as a sexual predator, and so on. Immoral and amoral politicians purposely encourage cultural stigma to expand their power.
- Social norms vary from culture to culture. Dogs are considered lovable pets in occidental society, but a source of food in some Asian countries. That can interfere with empathy. Similarly, immigrants who come from areas with entirely different social norms may find themselves rejected, criticized, or even despised when they do things or eat foods that are perfectly acceptable in their native culture, but not as much in their current context. Nineteenth century missionaries from New England were appalled to find South Pacific Islanders happily naked. African dance was considered primitive and undignified among upperclass Europeans a century ago. Churchgoers become judgmental of a man who doesn’t remove his hat.
- Narrative framing affects empathy for both creatures and fellow humans. If I refer to a mouse as a “filthy rodent,” my language may invoke merciless apathy rather than empathy. Similarly, if I refer to fellow humans in degrading monikers like those we see daily on Twitter posts, others become dehumanized in our minds; they no longer matter as much; they become objects, enemies. Public manipulators refer to immigrants as “moochers,” or “rapists.” As a result, those immigrants are dehumanized.
- Moral disengagement allows us to distance ourselves from the feelings of other beings. We imagine that deer do not experience panic, fear, or loss so we can shoot them without guilt. We become numb to death. Out of necessity, an immigrant takes a job in a slaughterhouse. He needs to feed his family. Over time, however, he becomes desensitized to carnage. One of the goals of military boot camp is to desensitize the recruits to the feelings of those they may be called upon to kill. In every war, the targeted “enemy” is given a nickname – Redcoats, Rebs, Damn Yanks, Krauts, Japs, Gooks, Rag-heads, Camel-jockeys. That is purposeful – it makes them easier to kill. Racial slurs make it easier to be a bigot.
- Environmental factors play a role in whether we are caring or uncaring. If we see a squirrel sitting up eating a walnut with its busy tail twitching, we think it is cute. If we see the same squirrel devouring baby birds from the nest it just ripped apart, we are repulsed. Similarly, the environment in which we see other people affects our attitude towards them. I may feel empathy for a person lying in a hospital bed, but be revolted by the same person standing in line ahead of me.
- Projection is a psychological defense we all use. It can be positive or negative, but it always involves denying some trait or impulse in us while attributing it to others. When it comes to loving animals, it can be a good thing. “The poor little thing is lonely,” may be a projection of our own feelings of isolation, but also might lead to providing a good home for a rescue pet. In the human realm, projection is often negative. A person with deep-seated denial of his sexuality becomes homophobic. A successful person assumes everyone can be a success. A woman with a poor body image is critical of those who are obese. A poorly educated man who can’t get a good a job projects his economic woes on “immigrant invaders.”
- Anthropomorphism is a specific kind of projection. It is projecting human-like qualities onto non-human species. We might assume, for example, that the dog or chimp is “smiling,” at us, when in fact she is agitated or feels threatened. We may anthropomorphize by seeing the predatory animal as “bad,” and its prey as “innocent.” By definition, it would be impossible to anthropomorphize a fellow human being. We do something similar, however, when we assume that others like what we like or are motivated by the same things that motivate us. That’s why it is vital we learn to truly listen to one another. If you tell me you’re “sad,” rather than assuming you feel sad like I feel sad, I need to explore what “sad” means to you. Are you a little down, clinically depressed, bereaved, or just disappointed?
Driven by social media, political discourse, talk radio, and cable television, contemporary American culture is saturated with antipathy, disparagement, derision, fear, and hatred. Lack of empathy for those not like us, for those perceived as “other,” is ubiquitous.
It is time for all of us, with God’s help, to honestly exam our hearts.
Am I joining in the cultural stigma that degrades a fellow human? Is that a man on the corner holding a sign a man or a bum?
Am I open to different social norms from different cultures? Have I tried to learn a new language, taste exotic foods, or appreciate rap music?
With what language am I referring to others? Is the man mowing the lawn an undocumented worker or an illegal? Is the black teenager a boy or a thug?
Do I dehumanize people, all of whom bear the image of God, by using debasing nicknames, or do I honestly try to see the world through their eyes?
Do I judge people by how they are dressed, or how they smell, or how white their teeth are?
Am I projecting my insecurities onto others?
Do I take the time to really listen to others?
Am I a compassionate, empathetic, caring person?
Do I act like a follower of Jesus?