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Facing Forward

January 8, 2015

In practically every single field of study or occupation, when there's a problem, the causes of even the most complicated issues come from our unfortunate failure to consistently do certain surprisingly simple things. A single mistyped character in a code for a top-security website can bring it down; one missed deadline after a long stretch of timely work messes up everything; and I'm not even going to talk about the fuss around washing hands often. And each of these actions by itself would appear to be benign, harmless. But when we allow these small mistakes to be ignored, they accumulate into mindsets and actions that ultimately damage the world in rather profound ways. Today, I want to talk about one such seemingly harmless choice that we make every day. I want to address issues that, I think, come about largely because of our inability to do something so simple and fundamental that, at the basic level, even mice are found capable of it -- empathy.

Over the years, there have been quite a few studies that show a certain degree of human-like empathy in mammals, and for the sake of interest and understanding, I'll recount a few. In one investigation, macaques were given a choice to pull a rope that, they knew, would deliver them food, but also would induce electric shocks to another macaque in the process. Many of them chose not to pull the rope, with this abstinence occurring more often when there was more familiarity between the macaques. This may not be empathy in its most sophisticated, but it's certainly relatable. Another study shows that when pain were inflicted on mice, they showed a greater degree of response when several familiar mice felt the pain together, rather than when they were alone, suggesting that mice are able to empathize at some basic level with others.

Before I dive into my thoughts, I want to get it out of the way that nobody is fully qualified to make objective conclusions on any nuanced and complex social issues, and that certainly includes me. But that shouldn't prevent us from thinking about the issues that we find and looking for ways to improve upon what we have, and I'm going to give it a shot.

At a simple level, empathy is hardly a complicated concept like anxiety or curiosity is. To empathize is to be able to imagine an experience from another perspective, different from yours. Right? You empathize with someone when you can imagine a situation from his perspective, attempting to feel what he could be feeling and thinking what he could be thinking, even if they may be different from your own experience. That's empathy. We're all exceptionally good at this when we know people that we empathize with. We can imagine and suffer from pain that another family member or a friend is going through, and we can get just as excited as our friends when they have the experience of their lives. It's what allows us to form such powerful communities to do something an individual just can't do -- we can share our emotions and views. But unfortunately, our natural ability to empathize only stretches so far, to the people we know closely. And for the people less familiar to us, which is unfortunately quite a lot of people, it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine the world as they see it, rather than as we do.

At the tail end of last year, vlogger Hank Green shared a compilation of what he called the Most Important Videos of 2014, and the short playlist covers a wide variety of global and domestic issues in the past year, many of which I've also talked about here. But as I was watching those videos, it occurred to me that for so many of the social and cultural problems that we've experienced, one of the central issues is that we too often fail to experience the reality from another vantage point. Specifically, on the topic of the recent growing tension between the police and the protesters and the two police officers' deaths that resulted from the conflict, this quote struck me as really insightful:

"It's a hate crime if you attack someone solely because of the color of their skin, but it ought to be a hate crime if you attack someone solely because of the color of their uniform as well." -Jim Pasco, executive director of the police union

In the general mindset of the media that, until the recent deaths of the police officers, criticized many of the police forces' faults and highlighted the flaws in the system, it would have been rather challenging to make that switch in perspective. It's a simple extension from nondiscrimination on race to nondiscrimination on profession, but it's not a common one. I think the most detrimental flaw in the way we think about people is that we tend to pick a side, refuse to switch perspectives, and dehumanize and demonize the other unfairly. During the time of the Ferguson shooting and protests, most of the nation took the opportunity to empathize with Michael Brown's families and mourn his death, and that cast the police officer who shot him, Darren Wilson, as the villain of the conflict under a grossly simplified, one-sided picture of his identity. I'm not saying his actions are justified -- there still is an inherent issue of racism in our society, and that's for another time. But I am saying that we are too often too quick to judge and simplify our view on people and, in a sense, de-humanize them into a flat, one-sided character in a badly written fiction book. Wilson was still a human being, with a loving family and a his own set of morals -- whatever that may be. And rather than blindly condemn him, perhaps trying to understand his perspective and his set of values can actually get us closer to resolving these problems that still haunt us today than merely pushing it aside as immoral.

The effects of our inability to empathize with others doesn't end there. Find any conflict that concerns moral views of two or more groups of people*, and it ultimately comes down to the fact that they refuse to really try to experience the reality as the other. And as we find greater differences between people, it becomes even harder to step into their shoes because of the gap. But if anything, that should push us further to try to understand each other even more, because we aren't going to solve any of these extremely complex issues if we refuse to understand the very reasons for the conflict and push it away as merely immoral or unjustified. We may disagree, and you may be right, but while we sit in discomfort, condemning others to criminality, those same issues are still happening somewhere else, and that's not going to stop happening until we understand the problem. So here's to facing forward into 2015 with a more open mind.

* In case you didn't catch, that's pretty much all of the social and cultural conflicts we experience.