Is it ever appropriate to withhold empathy from another human being? From a young age, most of us are taught to think of others’ feelings in evaluating our own behavior. We learn to try to put ourselves in another person’s shoes when confronting questionable behavior or a simple difference of opinion. If we are able to do this, we can empathize with the other person. Perspective-taking is key in our ability to understand what another person might be thinking and allowing us to empathize with them. When we show empathic concern for another person, it is because we simply care for them as another human.
Empathy is a trait that is found in cultures around the world. Although it is not always expressed the same way or as frequently in some places, it is universal in nature. In 2016, William J. Chopik, Ed O’Brien, and Sara H. Konrath led a study of the ways that empathy shows up in different cultures. They found that while all cultures displayed empathy as a prosocial trait, those who grow up in collectivist societies, like Japan, had stronger empathic responses and more agreeableness, conscientiousness, self-esteem, emotionality, life satisfaction, and prosocial behavior overall. The authors noted that “Parents from collectivistic cultures stress the strong interconnection of individuals (Lebra, 1976). For example, East Asian parents teach their children to fear loneliness and isolation, whereas Western parents generally focus on teaching children the benefits of being independent and unique.” In societies like the United States, where individualism is emphasized, empathetic responses are not as culturally valued.
As our society here in the United States has evolved over the past 50 years, we are becoming even less empathetic. While in the early ’70s, “peace, love and understanding” were common words heard within public discourse, today they are looked upon as quaint hippie language. In a longitudinal study of college-age students from 1979 until 2009, researchers found that both empathy and perspective-taking as prosocial values are on a significant decline. How is this change in attitude toward empathy affecting our culture?
As we question the tribalism and polarization that we see within the current political realm, we can understand that empathy for all others has been replaced with empathy for those within our own tribes, those who believe the same things that we believe. In an article by Hanna Rosin on the topic, she notes that Fritz Breithaupt, a professor at Indiana University who studies empathy says that “one of the strongest triggers for human empathy is observing some kind of conflict between two other parties…Once they take the side, they’re drawn into that perspective. And that can lead to very strong empathy and too strong polarization with something you only see this one side and not the other side any longer.” It is a case of empathizing too much with your own cohort and seeing others as the enemy. We see this happening daily within our political world here in the United States and many feel it is to our detriment. Congress is gridlocked and very little gets done to solve real problems our country faces. Name-calling online has become a sport. Most voters see this as a problem, but no easy solution is imminent.
There are real and difficult questions to face. Can there be a “both sides argument” as President Trump tried to present when it came to the Nazi protesters in Charlottesville? Where do we draw the line? Why should we try to understand the other side, especially if they are hurting us or those we care about? If we empathize with “the other” are we hurting those who they hurt? Do we become apologists? These are challenging questions that can be hard to parse. If we give up on trying to understand one another, then we end up at war. If we do try to understand one another, it can be seen as giving in or capitulation to the other side. However, just because we try to understand one another, or empathize, does not mean that we will change our minds about our opinions. If someone holds a belief that goes against our personal values, we do not have to embrace them. However, we can attempt to understand how that person developed those beliefs, not to excuse them, but in the effort to recognize that they are human. When we dismiss anyone as “worthless,” then we become the same as those who call immigrants “animals”.
Empathy is about seeing the humanity in all people so that we do not “otherize” them. It is important to understand the circumstances that bring people to their actions and beliefs. Within the criminal law system, we have the concept of mitigating circumstances. When considering the circumstances of a crime, we do not excuse or justify criminal conduct, but we look at the circumstances out of mercy or fairness in deciding the degree of the offense charged or reduction of the penalty upon conviction. In this way, we empathize with the defendant regarding the circumstances that brought him or her to commit the crime, but we do not excuse the behavior, and we mete out the appropriate punishment.
This facet of empathy, seeing the humanity in one another, even those who commit crimes, is part of what makes us human. As Brené Brown, the social scientist who has spent a career studying empathy, says “empathy is about being vulnerable with other people in their vulnerability…it’s about connection.” While we do not have to agree with those who hold opposing views, we can listen and seek to understand one another. If we stop trying to understand one another, there is no path forward, only negativity and battle. It is only through listening to and understanding why someone believes what they believe that we can see them as the human being that they are.
Fortunately, there is a small but growing movement in this country of groups working to bridge the political gap in an effort to encourage more empathic responses. Better Angels, Fearless Dialogues, Essential Partners, and The Perspective Exchange are examples of organizations helping people work together to see that they actually have things in common with those on the other side of an issue. Using highly skilled facilitators, these groups intentionally bring people with differing viewpoints together using a planned, structured format allowing participants to engage in deep discussions where they really dig into what brought them to their beliefs rather than debating one another. Participants walk away from these events wanting even more dialogue because they have connected on an empathic level. I invite you to take a look at these organizations and others in communities around the country and join them in the work of seeing the humanity in others. And if there is no scheduled conversation in your area, think about volunteering with Better Angels and getting one started. It is only once we stop arguing that we can begin to heal our country and find solutions.