Friday, October 09, 2015

Encouraging Empathy (with Tim)

Tim:
I want to start off with the idea of empathy. Roughly speaking, empathy is the ability to read the emotions of others, combined with the ability to imagine what they are thinking or feeling. Unfortunately, empathy is in decline in our society. A series of studies from 1979 to 2008 found that there has been a significant decline in empathy amongst young people, with the sharpest drop after 2000. Similarly, another study in 2010 has found that as people's socioeconomic situation improves, their ability to judge the emotions of others, their 'empathetic ability', declines. Is this something we should care about?

Trev:
I would love to see those studies. They seem different to my experience of a world with more connections. You would think that once you have put out the fires (have enough to eat, a roof, clothes, and your family are safe), you have more capacity for empathy. A world of scarcity should cause you to fight for limited resources. A world of abundance should be a place where we should care more about how we are connected to others. There are limits on empathy, I can't 'think like a bat', but I do think we should care about learning to try and listen, and feel, from different perspectives.

Tim:
Just like you, I have read and been deeply influence by Steven Pinker's 'The Better Angels of Our Nature'. So, I agree with the idea that once our basic needs are met, and once we have the cognitive space to take the view of others, then we do become more compassionate. However, I think that's only true up to a point. I think that we may now be seeing the reverse of this trend in some places. And the Internet, instead of bringing us closer, is actually alienating us. I think that social media like Facebook actually reinforce unpleasant tendencies like narcissism and therefore reduce empathy.


Trev:
Gossip is a powerful way of evolving new etiquette when it comes to new technology. I was once sitting around a pool with 13 laughing people as someone's narcissistic facebook post was read aloud. Apparently an email list with this person's posts had gained quite a following. Banter about arbitrary pictures of food, and false modesty postvertisements of 'I  have been so humbled by this amazing thing I have achieved' do make people think twice. I think we improve. Think of how many people now turn off their cellphones at dinner, or put them on silent. We can't blame technology. Perhaps the reduced empathy is a messy middle step because we are engaging with more people who are different from us? It is easy to empathise with someone with your same worldview

Tim:
Technology has promised us a lot more than it has delivered in terms of social connections. For example, in the field of language teaching there has been great excitement about computer assisted language learning ever since the nineties, and yet each new innovation soon gives way to learner fatigue, and time and again we see that there is no substitute for a real live teacher who can build rapport and motivate students. It's the same with any communication which is mediated by technology. Sooner or later, we all crave the intimacy of face-to-face communication. I would say that it's time for a return to more empathic human relationships where we look one another in the eye, and learn to read each other's emotions again.

Trev:
I use technology as a catalyst for human interaction. I would certainly rather by having this conversation with you over a beer. It would mean we could spend a few minutes talking about how useless my brother is. I don't think we can blame technology for our emotional intelligence deficiencies. Technology can certainly highlight them! Hopefully that gives us a chance to create boundaries and use the tools rather than letting them use us. Growing up, we had a rule that you didn't phone anyone after 8:30pm. It was rude. That rule is gone. Social media has led me to meeting up with people I wouldn't have known were there. As with music, digitisation hasn't replaced live performance. There is something magical about personal interaction.

Tim:
When I found out that Dianne Kohler-Barnard from the DA had shared a Facebook post which glorified PW Botha, I was reminded that many white South Africans really don't have any empathy for the harm caused by Apartheid. I don't know if you've read 'Country of My Skull' by Antjie Krog, but I personally think that it should be compulsory reading for all white South Africans, because it forces us to look at the brutal and tragic waste of life exposed by the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. It's such a gut wrenching and empathic work that it almost destroyed Antjie Krog while she was writing it. That's the kind of visceral and deeply human storytelling that we need to restore our empathy in a world that celebrates style over substance.


Trev:
I haven't read it yet, and will consider it compulsory, and grant you the right to strike down upon me with great vengeance and furious anger if I haven't read it post-haste. I did read 'A Man of Good Hope' by Jonny Steinberg which helped personify the ugliness that is Xenophobia. Stories have a wonderful ability to build empathy. I don't think we are capable of seeing the world from each other's perspective, but we can learn how many connections we share. We can listen. Whether by coming together face-to-face and creating those connections, or hearing about the web of stories that make us up. Many of those stories have common ingredients.



Tim:
'To Kill a Mockingbird' is a classic in terms of building empathy for those who are not like us, and maybe the most memorable quote from the book is: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." I guest that's what I'm thinking of when I talk about empathy and compassion. I aspire to that ideal, but it takes a lot of courage. It's a risky business giving up your own perspective for a minute, and it's a risky business exposing yourself to other people's pain, even for a short while.


===========

Tim Casteling teaches English in Seoul, South Korea. 'Old Friends' was his first guest post.
Don't follow him on Social Media, rather track him down and have a chat face-to-face. He likes that.

Post a Comment