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?
As John Oliver pointed out, there needs to be a balance between gargling with bleach and licking subway handrails. There is no need to panic, especially if you know you are ultimately in the hands of a loving God. On the other hand, it is foolish to downplay Covid-19 as if it were just another common cold.
What should an apprentice of Jesus do?
- Pray, trust God, stay focused on Jesus.
- Wash your hands very frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
- Use sanitizer if no water is available. (You can make your own – 60% isopropyl alcohol mixed with aloe.)
- Try to stop touching your face.
- If you’re sick: (a) see a physician (b) stay home from work/school if you can afford to.
- 6. Stop shaking hands with people.
- Stay out of crowds as much as possible.
- Check in with the CDC and WHO for accurate information.
What should a follower of Christ NOTdo?
- Listen to the uniformed half-truths, speculations, and lies of politicians.
- Watch/listen to televangelists.
- Watch/listen to “news” that is propaganda.
- Be a racist/xenophobe who is afraid of Asians.
- Hoard masks and supplies other people need more than you do.
- Believe what you read/see/hear on the internet without checking it out.
- Fall for scams like drinking silver.
- Care more about the stock market than fellow human beings.
Psychologists assume that all of our thoughts arise from within ourselves, influenced by our genetic makeup, life experiences, families of origin, neurochemical balances, and, (perhaps) our choices. That assumption is based on the supposition that there are no spiritual forces in the universe that can affect our thoughts. Hence, it is presumed, for example, that dreams arise from within, that every character in a dream represents some aspect of ourselves and reveals something about ourselves.
Cognitive interventions are based on the premise that we have the ability to choose what we consciously think. We can learn not to ruminate on the negative and focus on the positive, to replace toxic self-talk with uplifting inner messages. Scripture seems to agree. The Apostle Paul invites us: “And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” (Philippians 4:8 NLT)
Science and Scripture agree that our conscious thoughts are under our control and that, with help, we can learn to focus them appropriately, and my so doing enhance our mental health, increase our sense of wellbeing, and enrich our relationships.
That we have control over our thoughts does not, however, mean that taking control is always easy. The inner tapes of harsh or neglectful parents and authority figures, intergenerational trauma, neurochemical imbalances, and early childhood experiences are a few of the things that make redirecting negative thoughts difficult for many adults. We can’t just knock off the negative. Skilled cognitive therapists can be invaluable. Authentic community is essential.
Scripture also indicates, and spiritually minded people have historically attested to the reality that in addition to our own thoughts, which undoubtedly derive from within the psychological and physiological mysteries of the human mind, both God and the evil one can and do speak to us in our inner minds. In my experience, it is often hard to tell the difference. Is it I speaking to me, the devil lying to me, or God guiding me? To me, all the voices sound alike.
But they feeldifferent.
Sometimes, it’s just me talking. The feelings are generally neutral; the thoughts are usually mundane – “time to take out the trash;” “I hope the lawn mower starts.”
When the inner voice, the thoughts, are demonic in origin, they produce anxiety, fear, hopelessness, confusion, discord, bitterness, anger, disunity, hatred, violent or self-destructive ideology, depression, self-centeredness, pride, narcissist fantasy, panic, bleakness, or despair. They lead to what Ignatius called “unfreedom.”
I am not talking about demon possession. Followers of Jesus cannot be demon possessed. “Greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world,” (1 John 4:4) not, greater is he who is in you than he who is also in you. Christians do not need to be delivered from demons. We do, however, need to resist the devil.
(By the way, a good way to tell if an infliction is natural or demonic is to resist it in Jesus’ power. Demons flee quickly. Physiological and psychological illnesses stick around. Prayer alone cures demonic possession or oppression. Prayer plus professional intervention, plus medication, plus loving community cures the rest.)
When the thoughts are from God, they invariably bring with them feelings of wholeness, shalom, peace, forgiveness, mercy, grace, love for others, love for self, love for nature, hope, unity, connectedness, reconciliation, acceptance, humility, and contentment. God’s voice is never demanding, never coercive, never harsh, never condemning, never angry, never violent.
God’s quiet whisper in my heart does not always tell me what I want to hear, nor does it always affirm what I am doing. Conversely, it often corrects and redirects. At times, it tells me to do something I would much rather not do. But it always feels wrapped in love. It is always in my best interest and for my ultimate happiness. It always advances the Kingdom of God on earth (as it is in heaven), and always lines up with the biblical text as interpreted through the words of Jesus within the community of believers. We need each other. We were never meant to live this Kingdom life alone.