Social empathy

· Government policy, social change
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I was always in trouble as a kid for pulling things apart to see how they worked. I am still unforgiven for straightening the spiral spring in the kitchen alarm clock to see how long it was. It was a habit, or way of thinking that I still have. Some would say I have gotten worse. But it seems to be a gift/curse that is losing popularity in society. Perhaps it is just the complexity of society, or the volume of information we are flooded with today.

If I find someone disagrees with me, my natural instinct is to ask the question

“Why do they feel that way?”

Most disagreements today involve a lot of shouting and digging in. There seems a reluctance to consider that a view can be changed if there is a good enough reason. Or even that the other person may have a valid opinion even if it is not right for me.

People use the word “empathy” but what does it really mean. The dictionary defines empathy as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

I am not just talking about empathy for someone undergoing a trauma, but empathy for all the views and experiences a person may have. If a politician tells us they are empathetic to the cost of living increases, is that a real thing? If a homeowner says they feel sorry for their neighbour but they still object to the renovation the neighbour is planning, does it show empathy? To answer that question, we need to look more closely at empathy. Here are three components of empathy.

Firstly, to practice empathy, we need to accept there are a whole range of views, values, and opinions different from what we may hold. Those values may still be perfectly valid for another person. A simple example is a demand for climate action to close coal-fired power stations. It will almost certainly cause electricity prices to rise in the short term.

If you are middle class, living comfortably and can afford the luxuries of life, closing the power stations is a valid and morally correct view. If you are a single mum struggling to put food on the table and clothe your children you might have a different view. You cannot see how you could survive if electricity prices rise. Is that a wrong view? If you are flexible enough in your own thinking and ask why the single mum holds such a view, you would understand climate action is forcing a choice for that person. Do you support closing coal-fired power stations, or feeding the kids?

So one part of empathy is not to believe your view is the only valid view. You can believe it is right for you, but for other people living in a different context, they can have a different view.

A second component of “empathy” is communication. On learning of the death of a friend, many people are stuck for words and resort to the old standby.

“Sorry for your loss.”

The rare person can launch into a soliloquy and touch the heart of the grieving person. While some people may be feeling the same emotions, sometimes they don’t have the words to express that feeling.

A third component of “empathy” is the “what” which brings me back to my childhood deconstruction. My instinctive reaction is to look at what is causing the situation and what are the options to solve or improve the situation. Others can just sympathise or reflect and/or reinforce the feelings of the person. Different approaches work for different people at different times.

To return to the central theme of this post, it is about how we empathise with those around us. I started thinking about this when I overheard a conversation on a bus. Two older ladies (marginally older than me that is) in front of me were talking about the election. One said,

“I can really empathise with you when you say a Labor government will ruin Australia”.

Of course, I had to pull that sentence apart. Was this really empathy or was it just agreeing with the other person? It got me thinking that maybe a lot of so-called empathy is happening because two people think alike on a particular subject. They might both be totally unempathetic people, but believe they are great empathisers just because they have touchpoints of agreement. A truly empathetic person should be able to provide support and understanding even if they are not totally aligned.

In the example, what if one thought Labor was going to be the saviour of Australia when elected. Could they empathise with the other? Should they? Try this.

“I know you have concerns about Labor ruining the country, and it must be distressing for you that they will win the election. What is it specifically that concerns you?”

OK, it is probably a bit over the top, but I used it to illustrate a point. If you can draw out the specific concerns, you might be able to address those specifics and help the person accept something they find distressing. Unfortunately, the response from a Labor supporter – or any other person holding a strong political view – in today’s culture is likely to be.

“What a load of rubbish! It will be the best thing for Australia when Labor is in charge.”

The temperature goes up a degree, and it ain’t coming down. Nobody changes their mind, and each side only digs in further. The fight or flight gene kicks in and people become more entrenched. Either that, or they pull down the shutters and the respondent goes down in their rating of the person as a friend. The possibility of the initial person saying

“I must have been wrong. There is nothing to worry about with a Labor government.”

is zero.

Another dimension of modern society is that opinion and identity become locked together. To change my opinion is to lose my identity. It is similar with fringe groups. Anti-vaxers and climate change deniers for example. They have an identity based on their view and to change their opinion is to lose their individuality.

In fact, aside from those who truly believe they are right, I suspect some take up their position to create a quirky identity. To say to the world, I know more than you do about what is going on. You are just being led along by the powers-that-be but I am smarter than you. I have discovered a conspiracy and am clever enough to know better than the rest.

It is not just the fringe. Mainstream views can also be identifiers. It can be political, socioeconomic, ethnic, religious or any mass belief. Beliefs can become so entwined with identity that to change a belief is to change an identity. How often do you hear someone say

“I once believed X but now I believe Y.”

Now I have pulled apart a comment overheard in a bus, and produced a few hundred words, what is the conclusion? It is this. Whilst the world talks about empathy, we are becoming less empathetic. Empathy requires understanding that there is a whole world out there that is different to what we believe. It is not necessarily wrong. It is not necessarily a threat to us. It is just something created through a whole different set of circumstances. Every face is different but no face is wrong just because it is not our face. No view is wrong just because it is not our view. It may be wrong for other reasons, but none of us has the perfect answer to every question. Life is more complicated than that.

In an increasingly polarised world where identity, individuality and strongly held opinions are increasingly the norm, empathy will get squeezed away. Comfort, support, confirmation and encouragement cannot just happen when two people’s views align. It should also exist when the perspectives are not in alignment. True empathy is when one is open to a whole different set of beliefs in another person and is willing to explore those views.

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