Sunday, February 01, 2015

Empathy Armoury

Biologically speaking, we are more closely related to Chimps and Bonobos than the African Elephant is to the Indian Elephant. On top of raw genes and nature, we add a whole layer of behaviour characteristics depending on where we are born. The disarming/disheartening(?)/interesting 50-0-50 theory suggests that half of our personality comes from heritable traits and half from our non-shared environment, and none on average from our shared environment (what happens within a family and is shared by all siblings). That simplifies the job of parents somewhat (if you agree). Basically you just need to keep the kid alive and make sure they know they are loved. The where we are born thing is huge. The stuff that happens outside the family that can't be controlled. The rules we come across, the friends we meet, and the experiences we have all make our lives quite path dependent. In studying chimps, researchers found that providing food to get the chimps to come closer (to make it easier to study them) dramatically affected their behaviour. Normally friendly chimps would become territorial, unpleasant, and lazy. Think pigeons on Trafalgar Square. Think London rush hour as the doors are closing and people aren't moving down. Change the rules. Change the game.

Chimps and Bonobos. Stu and Phil. African and Indian Elephant.

One tool we have in our armoury is empathy. We don't have to only be aware of our path. I am not talking about always switching or dreaming of switching (See The Art of Non-Choosing), but being able to share creative expressions about other paths does help us understand each other. It is incredibly difficult to silence your perspective, allow a bull quota, and just listen. Can you imagine a married, monogamous, hetrosexual American guy from the middle of a deeply religious state reading 'The Ethical Slut', a book about morality within alternative lifestyles, and gleaning lessons for how to communicate with his wife from lessons learnt from the lesbian community? How far can you imagine a card-carrying-conservative, busy Banker getting in Russell Brand's 'Revolution'? Given that Russell tells people he is not directing his book to to put it down, and insults them (and David Cameron) colourfully. It is hard to imagine some continuing to read (however entertaining) to find helpful suggestions. He combines the full range with fantastic descriptions of extreme life lesson (which you don't need to try at home to understand) and shorthand misunderstandings/alternative views that may cause people to put the book down. The book is great.


We don't have a lot of time. So we can't read everything or employ method acting techniques to create the context we need to understand others. We struggle enough finding time to empathise with those in our daily lives. It is therefore not surprising that we get stuck at lower 'levels of moral development' (as Patrick described in yesterday's guest post). The thing is, it is empathy and our ability to live lives we aren't living that makes us human. Robots and machines can do more and more of the rest. We need to make time.


Post a Comment