As is always the case, I only blog when I am disrupted by something I observe in the world around us enough to bother to write. The subject of this post, I suppose, stems from long-held ideas I have had about human nature, and the processes that go on inside our internal worlds that make us who we are. Not in a general sense; not the human race. But individuals. You and you and you.
The post in and of itself is only a distant cousin of the political thoughts and musings I post here. However, I believe firmly that it is at the core of every thought anyone has on such subjects, or will ever have, and is therefore also intimately related to what everyone believes, in one way or another, about everything. Perhaps, upon perusing my pages, you might find it within yourselves to question everything you think and feel, and through osmosis, be more receptive to the thoughts of others.
Psychology Today defines empathy thusly:
“Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. Empathy is known to increase prosocial (helping) behaviors. “
PT also adds the strange and seemingly gratuitous statement:
“While American culture might be socializing people into becoming more individualistic rather than empathic, research has uncovered the existence of “mirror neurons,” which react to emotions expressed by others and then reproduce them.”
If you want to know more than you probably ever cared to about mirror neurons, you can bone up on them here: Mirror, Mirror In The Brain: Mirror Neurons, Self-Understanding And Autism Research
The takeaway from this is what is really important. Humans have evolved in such a way that the emotional response which we call empathy makes us a more viable species. It gives us some advantage. It is a part of our makeup, in each and every one of us. Keep in mind, that although it is often associated with negative emotions, feeling empathy is not restricted to negative emotions. It is, however, from the negative aspects of empathy through which altruism is born.
Psychology Today defines altruism thusly:
“Acting with an unselfish regard for others doesn’t always come naturally, even though many psychologists believe we’re hard-wired for empathy since cooperative behavior allowed our ancestors to survive under harsh conditions. But most of us realize that when we make the effort to give without expectations of reciprocity, we feel fulfilled and energized.”
Now, add to this what is known as the “Negative-State Relief Model”, which in essence hypothesizes that when empathy kicks in, producing a negative affect or “mood”, we instinctively want to do something to help; not to genuinely help others – there is no such thing as pure altruism – but to alleviate our own symptoms. An egoistic model of altruism. This has been corroborated in several studies, such as the one linked here, as well as the “empathy-altruism hypothesis”. I would point out that there are dissenters to this, so I don’t want to establish my posit as fact, but as an assumption based on evidence I have gathered. Your mileage may vary.
So, when you see tragedy strike, such as Typhoon Haiyan, or even a neighbor whose house burns down, your instinctive desire to help comes not from your altruistic desire to assist in times of need. It actually comes from disliking the way that seeing tragedy makes you feel, and helping can relieve the symptoms of that reaction. Helping others is done for purely selfish reasons.
By extension, when empathy (and remember the definition of empathy above) is not stimulated, one can be dismissive of the thoughts and feelings of others. One can even feel disdain, or apathy. It is why people can look at human tragedies such as natural disasters with intense negative emotions (sadness, fear, anger, etc.), but can turn a blind eye (or even cheer) just as easily to the deaths of foreigners in wars in which the group feels “righteous” and/or “justified”. I find this to be an interesting aspect of human thinking, but I can see the evolutionary value in it. If members of my group are being injured, the emotional pain created by observing their suffering and feeling empathy helps me to move to action to resolve the pain and help promote the continuity of my group. However, in a territorial dispute, or some other mechanism which might provoke a sense of threat which invokes another suite of negative emotions, it is contraindicated to feel empathy for those who it is perceived would do us harm. Quite the conundrum.
In recent discussions in another public forum, I was rather amazed to see the same comment come through in two different and isolated discussions, regarding very near to identical topics.
In having a conversation with a liberal-leaning person regarding (insert your favorite topic here) , I posed the question “Why do you think that conservatives feel that way about (your favorite topic)?” The response was “Because they are stupid.”
In the same conversation with a conservative-leaning individual, invisible to one another, the conservative-leaning individual responded to the same question regarding the liberal, “Well, you know, statistics show that people with liberal leanings have much lower IQs than conservatives.” In other words, they are stupid.
These two feel passionately about their world views, and I cannot fault them for that. However, they both use a logical fallacy to invalidate the others’ argument without applying any critical thinking. I see enormous numbers of compositions, diatribes, epithets, and irrational tomes penned by individuals who have no other goal than to further their own world view through subjective opinion without offering any analysis, or offering misguided and falsified (a la Mr. Sanders in my last post) data to support their positions. But even that sort of bewitchery and manipulation pales in comparison to these two. These arguments (that the other party, pardon the pun, is stoopit) are both ad hominem. Lowest of the low. And generally reserved for when you know your argument is defeated, and you have nowhere to go but irrational.
And for the record, it should be noted that conservatives actually tend to have significantly lower IQs than liberals: Do Racism, Conservatism, and Low I.Q. Go Hand in Hand?
While I align myself with neither, it is important not to let that assertion become the focus of this article, lest the reader ignore the rest of this based on my conservative friend’s reaction. My liberal friend I cannot be so kind to – as this person offered no such reference to a statistic, imagined or otherwise. It’s what humans do. Keep that in mind, and be tolerant.
With that, some of the wisest words I have read recently were written by Michael Jinkins, President of Louisville Seminary School, in an article entitled “Intellectual Empathy”. The full article is here.
“This capacity for intellectual empathy is essential to those who wish to live generously and with integrity in a pluralistic society. Perhaps it is even more essential today than in times past, given the social and cultural forces that presently foster division and encourage peremptory dismissal of opposing views—not to mention our enhanced capacities to destroy one another. Practicing intellectual empathy is a kind of spiritual discipline, because it necessitates that we put aside our belief that the lens through which we view the world is the only right one (see Rom 12:3).”
To frame this up:
Often, the half-witted reactions (the reaction, not the person) of perfectly intelligent and otherwise sane human beings to any question of their world view and/or any belief one might hold dear is nothing more than a primal reaction to feeling threatened. You allineate those who share your world view, and alienate those who do not instinctively, because you feel your world view is threatened. You go on the defensive, and strike back, often using arguments without intellectual merit, and frequently with logical fallacies.
It’s important to realize that the vast majority of what you think and feel are all artificial constructs. Roles in society and within your social group, or your much larger group as a human being. They are not real. They are no more than hallucinations, phantoms of your ego and the environment in which you were raised, and a thousand different things that have occurred to you in your lifetime that have led you to believe the things you do. You will feel empathy for those in your group and champion the cause without concern for things like facts at times, and you will attack and defend against anyone who does not share your world view and in any way tries to threaten it.
Political ideologies, religious beliefs, capitalism, democracy, every social convention you can think of are all products of your mind. You, the individual. You are neither right nor wrong, you are a collection of psychologies and instincts that makes up who you are, and the mere existence of contradictory thought is not a threat to your well-being, nor your existence. Solving social messes can only come with collaboration.
Even things that we can all stand fast together on – terrorism, starving children, murder, the shit perpetually happening in the Congo – your distaste for these things is a combination of millennia of evolution and your world view, and is neither right nor wrong. Right and wrong are far more cut and dry. The world is not flat, it is round. The sun functions by fusing Hydrogen and Helium, it is not Apollo/Helios riding a chariot across the sky. Your opinion regarding political topics du jour such as the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), or drilling for oil off the Gulf Coast, or nuclear power… I could go on forever here… These are all products of your mind, and are no more or less valid than the opinion of anyone else. In 2,000 years they will be no more relevant than the history of Ancient Greece.
So, the next time you want to rant or rail against someone’s ideologies, and want to just tell them they are ignorant or uninformed in a knee-jerk way, present them with rational facts supporting your argument within the context of the position you are taking. When all else fails, find a solution that works for the two sides. And by all means, if you are presented with facts that torpedo your current world view, have the courage and intestinal fortitude to change your way of thinking or your view of the world.
Stop allowing the hindbrain to interfere with your intellectual capacity for analytical reasoning. Support your arguments with fact and research, don’t be dismissive of others, as their opinions are never more or less “right” than yours are.
And please, above all else, stop regurgitating opinionated subjective hooey all over the internet. It’s unbecoming the behavior of an adult, and it makes you actually appear stoopit.