Lately, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of empathy. Maybe it’s the holiday season. Maybe it’s something deeper.
I attended a talk by Margret Atwood at the Parkland conference and she referred to Frans De Waal’s latest book “The Age of Empathy” Using the Edmonton Public Library’s new iPhone app, I immediately put this book on hold. If you haven’t had a chance to check out the app, it’s a pretty neat tool for smartphones to find new titles, place holds, and feed your literary appetite.
Pulling from his lifelong work as a primatologist, De Waal’s latest book explores “nature’s lessons for a kinder society.” I would recommend this read for it’s fascinating anecdotes, funny stories, and thought-provoking social insights.
From apes to house cats to dolphins, De Waal pulls from a vast variety of biological and psychological research to argue the case for a move towards enlightened self-interest.
A couple of passages that resonated with me:
“Humans are bipolar apes. We have something of the gentle,sexy bonobo, which we may like to emulate, but not too much; otherwise the world might turn into one giant hippie fest of flower power and free love. Happy we might be, but productive perhaps not. And our species also has something of the brutal, domineering chimpanzee, a side we maywish to suppress, but not completely, because how else would we conquer new frontiers and defend our borders? One could argue that there would be no problem if all of humanity turned peaceful at the same time, but no population is stable unless it’s immune to invasions by mutants. I’d still worry about that one lunatic who gathers an army and exploits the soft spots of the rest.
So, strange as it may sound, I’d be reluctant to radically change the human condition. But if I could change one thing, it would be to expand the range of fellow feeling. The greatest problem today, with so many different groups rubbing shoulders on a crowded planet, is excessive loyalty to one’s own nation, group, or religion. Humans are capable of deep disdain for anyone who looks different or thinks another way, even between neighbouring groups with almost identical DNA, such as the Israelis and Palestinians. Nations think they are superior to their neighbors, and religions think they own the truth. When push comes to shove, they are ready to thward or even eliminate oneanother. In recent years, we have seen two huge office towers brought down by airplanes deliberately flown into them as well as massive bombing raids on the capital of a nation, and on both occasions the deaths of thousands of innocents was celebrated as a triumph of good over evil. The lives of strangers are often considered worthless. Asked why he never talked about the number of civilians killed in the Iraq War, U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld answered: “Well, we don’t do body counts on other people.”
Empathy for “other people is the one commodity the world is lacking more than oil. It would be great if we could create at least a modicum of it. How this might change things was hinted at when, in 2004, Israeli justice minister osef Lapid was touched by images of a Palestinian woman on the evening news. “When I saw a picture on the TV of an old woman on all fours in the ruins of her home looking under some floor tiles for her medicines, I did think, ‘What would I say if it were my grandmother?’” Even though Lapid’s sentiments infuriated the nation’s hard-liners, the incident showed what happens when empathy expands. In a brief moment of humanity, the minister had drawn Palestinians into his ciricle of concern.
If I were God, I’d work on the reach of Empathy. (De Wall, The Age of Empathy 203-204)
When you hear so many assumptions about human nature, his book challenges us to carefully choose the narative that we wish for species.
“A society based purely on selfish motives and market forces may produce wealth, yet it can’t produce the unity and mutual trust that make life worthwhile. This is why surveys measure the greatest happiness not in the wealthiest nations but rather in those with the highest levels of trust among citizens. Conversely, the trust-starved climate of modern business spells trouble and has recently made many people deeply unhappy by wiping out their savings. In 2008, the world’s financial system collapsed under the weight of predatory lending, reporting of nonexistent profits, pyramid schemes, and reckless betting with other people’s money.
It’s not as if we’re asking our species to do anything foreign to it by building on the old herd instinct that has kept animal societies together for millions of years. And her I don’t mean that we should blindly follow one another, but that we have to stick together: We can’t just scatter in all directions. Every individual is connected to something larger than itself. Those who like to depict this connection as contrived, as not part of human biology, don’t have the latest behavioral and neurological data on their side. The connection is deeply felt and, as Mandeville had to admit, no society can do without it.
First of all, there are the occasions where others need aid and we have a chance to offer it in the form of food banks, disaster relief, elderly care, summer camps for poor children, and so on. Measured by volunteer community services, Western societies seem to be in great shape indeed, and have plenty of compassion to go around. But the second area where solidarity counts is the common good, which includes health care, education, infrastructure, transportation, national defense, protection against nature, and so on. Here the role of empathy is more indirect because no one would want to see such vital pillars of society depend purely on the warm glow of kindness.
The firmest support for the common good comes from enlightened self-interest: the realization that we’re all better off if we work together. If we don’t benefit from our contributions now, then at least potentially we will in the future, and if not personally, than at least potentially we will in the future, and if not personally, than at least via improved conditions around us. Since empathy binds individuals together and gives each a stake in the welfare of others, it bridges the world of direct “what’s in it for me?” benefits and collective benefits, which take a bit more reflection to grasp. Empathy has the power to open our eyes to the latter by attaching emotional value to them.” (223)
The three district priorities are Literacy, Numeracy, and Citizenship. As we go forward setting our next 3 year list of district priorities, I’m curious to hear your thoughts about what role ideas like creativity, empathy, wellness or entrepreneurship could play in our upcoming district priorities.
A very thought-provoking read.