The Worldwide Empathy Deficit

How fear keeps us from manifesting the best in ourselves

Politics is informed with some of our best intentions, with much of our lust for ‘improvement’ and with all of our fears, petty and grandiose, paranoid and consequential. We have seen a great and resonant turning toward better instincts in the US, with an election that for good reasons inspires hope and may allow us to manifest more than ever those “better angels of our nature”, but we must recongize that in order to manifest the best in ourselves, we must start by overcoming our own habits of fear and division.

It is still commonplace, all too much so, to hear the phrase “human nature” used to excuse or explain unspeakable betrayals. It is still commonplace for people on the street, or in grocery-store checkout lines, or at airports, to mutter under their breaths about the types of people they fear or would like to be rid of. We are still caught up, in some way, in ever corner of our global civilization, with the need to know who it is that we should dislike, ostracize or fear.

It is a temptation, like any vice, that runs throughout the entire notion of political organization, in every society that has ever existed, it would seem: figure out who the bad actors are, and then direct all the energy that would go into defending against prey in the wild, or preparing for storms gathering on the horizon, or denouncing evil spirits, at them. And thus to save ourselves from some imminent destruction.

But do we need to think this way? Is the truth of the matter that we, whoever “we” are, are always the good and the righteous and the unimpeachably well-intentioned, and they, the undefined other, the capital “They”, are always after us, snarling at the gates, ready to tear us to shreds? Or is it something more to do with the mismanagement of fear?

When we give into the zeal of collective fear, we derive all sorts of spiritual “benefits” from the exercise. We feel part of something, we feel justified, and therefore Just, we feel wise and aware, and therefore Safe, we feel insecure yet buffered against decay, we feel empowered by numbers, and therefore Powerful.

Fear is a trick of the mind: at the level of instinct, it can warn us of danger, or shade a situation just enough with doubt to let us know it is best seen as dubious. In that, it can be a virtue. But as commander of our emotional order, as master of the universe, it is a tyrant and a cheat. Fear makes up its own rules, distorts our vision and undermines every valuable perspective we might gain as to the nature of our problems.

There are degrees of fear, ranging from mortal fear of social infamy to petty fears about whether minor events in daily life will work out. Dishonor leads people in some dark corners of the world to murder women in their own families for absurd reasons: either because they have fallen in love or because they have been raped, neither of which should “dishonor” a family if there is any amount of basic empathy in the community.

It is also true that when a nation breaks down into “red states” and “blue states”, when factionalism takes over and we identify value by way of identity categories, when colors and phrasing and style and origin dictate how we should react emotionally to someone we may not even know, when we fail to give a fair hearing to people as a result of it, we have let the stingy cunning of fear into our hearts, and we will pay a price for it, whether we recognize that the payment has been taken or not.

In such climates of fear and disavowal, of denunciation and animosity, we relinquish the hopes of dialogue, we build up walls where there might be public squares, we look askance at anyone who dares to cross over and seek some amount of communication with the “unclean” that occupy the other side of the metaphorical divide.

Empathy is not a sign of weakness, but of strength. Nations should not scorn and assault one another’s dignity or good will, because only by cultivating that dignity and good will, mutually, can any agreements be made between rivals. And we should be wary of claiming for ourselves an unshakeable high-ground, lest we be ousted from it by our own arrogance and inability to see the interests of those around us clearly.

How do we deal with the hardships that have been unfairly put upon us by rogue leaders or by the common injustice of mobs steeped in confusion? How do we not adopt the logic of fear and confrontation, and yet confront the hard challenges of a moment of real peril and consequence?

Somehow, we need to find that part of ourselves that understands the basic truth of a shared humanity, even in the difficult energy that runs between us and those with whom we compete for access to resources, to power or to the mere privilege of having a voice, and respect that others should as well.

No principle, no religion, no system of government is truly strong or legitimate in its intentions and its methods, if it cannot operate within this sort of interpersonal humanity. We cannot rule out the value of others as a matter of principle; we cannot rule out the voice of those we disagree with, simply because we think we have proven their past claims inadmissible.

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