Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year's Resolution: More Empathy

My New Year's resolution might surprise some people. I resolve to be more empathetic. Yes, I am generally a pretty empathetic person. But I want to be less judgmental and more understanding of where people are coming from when I don't agree with them. Especially, I resolve to accept my daughter-in-law's parenting decisions and to truly listen to her when she explains why she has made these decisions. There are many approaches and philosophies that are good ways to raise children, and her way (and of course our son's way as well) do not have to be the same as our way. So, if they have decided that their son will not be babysat by anyone until such time as he says he wishes to be, so be it.

And if everyone resolved at the start of this year to raise their level of empathy toward others, wouldn't this be a much better world? It's not so hard. When a judgmental thought about another person pops into your head (and maybe is on the verge of popping out of your mouth), take a mental step back and try to appreciate that person's actions or statements or beliefs from his/her point of view.

What do you say? Are you up for it?

Monday, August 30, 2010

Religious Intolerance Tsunami

I feel like there is a tsunami of religious intolerance sweeping the globe lately.

In New York: The growing controversy over building a Muslim center a couple blocks from ground zero results in a Muslim cab driver being stabbed. Anti-Islam fervor appears to be growing, fed by the right-wing media. Tara Bahrampour in the Washington Post reports that this recent backlash against Muslims in the U.S. has Muslim students at American University in Washington D.C. feeling fearful and very upset.

In Pakistan: Members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community (2 to 4 million Pakistanis) are being targeted for death by "traditional Muslims", apparently with the tacit approval of the government, and suicide bombers are blowing up Shiite mosques, according to an article by Trudy Rubin in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Shockingly, she reports that the Pakistani constitution, since 1974, has labeled Ahmadis "non-Muslim" (and therefore open to persecution, even unto death.)

On network news in the U.S.: On NBC's Today Show, there was an interview by Brian Williams with President Obama about the growing number of Americans who believe Obama is a Muslim. While I respect Brian Williams as a journalist, he introduces his interview by saying that President Obama is facing accusations that he is a Muslim. Accusations? As if being Muslim were a crime?

What is going on?

Fortunately, even in the midst of growing religious intolerance, we find examples of people seeking to spread understanding and respect for others of differing faiths. Today I read in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that a group of Muslims are handing out small cards entitled "Islam Explained" at the Minnesota State Fair. As one participant explained: "'Education promotes tolerance,' said Julianne Scasny, a Muslim who was handing out cards outside the State Fair Sunday with her husband, Mounaf Alsamman, a U.S. citizen from Syria who said he has never seen such suspicion of Islam in the United States as he has seen recently."

Empathy can push back against this tsunami of hatred and misunderstanding. Let us do all we can to stand up for the humanity of all people on this planet, of whatever religious beliefs, including those who do not believe in God at all. And let us educate ourselves. When I go to the State Fair this weekend, I will be sure to seek out the "Islam Explained" card and read it carefully.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

follow-up to previous discussion

My son, Zack, sent me this e-mail in response to my query as to whether young people are really less empathetic than their predecessors:

Without knowing the details of the study, it's really hard to judge how accurate it is. If it's empathy for the struggles of minorities, I think young people are much more empathetic, if for no other reason than minorities are more integrated than in past generations. And with the increased ratio of minorities in this country, that too should make young people more empathetic.

However, when it comes to having empathy for opposing points of view, especially political views, the study may be right. It is my general feeling that people are, on average, not very interested in even hearing opposing points of view, let alone trying to empathize with them.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Are young people less empathetic?

I read about a new study that claims that college kids are about 40% less empathetic than their counterparts 20 or 30 years ago. This was a large study analyzing data on 14,000 college students. The results were obtained by asking students pretty straight-forward questions like how much they agree with the statement, "I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective". I answered the questionnaire myself, and it seemed hard to get a low score.

A 40% drop is huge, and the article in Science Digest speculated on why this might have occurred, fingering everything from violent video games to reality shows (which make entertainment of real humans' problems) to Facebook as the culprits.

But I have to wonder if the results are right. All of the young people I know, from my sons' friends to my nieces and nephews to people I work with, seem quite empathetic. Yes, they connect on Facebook in a somewhat superficial way, but that doesn't mean they don't connect with each other in real life, and they still seem to share and listen to each other as much as ever. Maybe I'm wrong. But I hope not.

I read about the study in New York Times' columnist Charles M. Blow's account of how he isn't as personally connected to his neighbors as people used to be. But then, he lives in New York City. Maybe it's different here in Minnesota. After all, Minneapolis is the number one city in the U.S. in terms of number of people who volunteer. And you don't voluntarily give up your time and money to help someone else, whether it's a child who needs help with reading in school, or a homeless family who needs a free meal, or a sick and lonely old person in a nursing home who needs a friend, unless you feel empathy for that person you're helping.

Maybe young people today just self-report differently than they did in the past. Maybe when asked how much a statement such as "When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective towards them" describes themselves, they chose the second-highest option on the five-point scale, for some reason. Maybe they're more cynical about being surveyed. Maybe they're more honest. Maybe they're thinking, "It depends on why that person is being taken advantage of."

I would really love to hear from young people: how accurate do you feel this study is?

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Gay stigma fading away

Good news on the empathy front! New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow reports on the Gallup research organization's findings that the percentage of Americans who feel that gay and lesbian relations are "morally acceptable" has passed the 50% mark. Further, the increase comes about because men have dramatically increased their acceptance of homosexuality in others, bringing them up to the same level of acceptance as found among women.

This is particularly true for young men. In general, it seems the youth are leading the way on this front. They've been exposed to gay characters on TV and in the movies their whole lives; they've seen increasing numbers of famous people come out and say "I'm gay, this is who I am, but it doesn't define me"; they personally know more people who are openly gay. Remember when Ellen DeGeneres came out on national TV in 1997 and it was considered so brave? She helped break the ground for Adam Lambert to be able to come out in a very casual and natural way 12 years later. Adam Lambert is the new normal for young people. One of my son's best friends is gay, and it certainly hasn't adversely affected their close friendship.

I'm not saying it isn't still difficult for a gay or lesbian person to tell the world--their families, friends and co-workers--about their sexual orientation. I don't want to make light of the prejudice and hostility they still face. But the stigma seems to be falling rapidly, as even the military is now on the verge of repealing its "Don't ask, don't tell" policy. And now we're seeing state after state open up marriage to same-sex couples, further decreasing the "us" vs "them" mentality of the past. I suspect that when Gallup does a follow-up poll in 10 years, young people in 2020 will say, "Who cares if someone's gay or not? No one I know."

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Empathy for Evil?

Are we required to have empathy for those who are evil?

I recently watched the movie Hotel Rwanda. This is, of course, a very disturbing movie about true evil that was committed on a massive scale, as well as being a hopeful movie about courage and respect for the humanity of others in the face of such evil.

So, should we try to feel empathy for those who slaughtered their neighbors, including small children, so brutally?

Yes, because feeling empathy does not mean condoning or excusing what the recipient of one's empathy does. Empathy may help us understand why humans can commit evil, either on an individual scale (as in the case of an abused child who grows up to become an abuser) or on a larger scale, as in Rwanda. But that doesn't mean that harming other people is ever okay.

Instead, we recognize and admit that we share a common humanity with those who commit evil, rather than distancing ourselves from them and consoling ourselves with the notion that we could never do what they did. Certainly, we all hope that we would be the brave ones to resist the Nazis, to shelter those being persecuted, to speak up when we see someone abusing their child in public. But until we can admit that all of us contain within our human souls the capacity to do wrong as well as right, we can make no progress in dealing with evil.

Who joined the Crusades? Who slaughtered whole families of Native Americans in their villages? Who enslaved Africans? Who lynched them when they were freed? Who participated in the killing fields of Cambodia? Who watched their Jewish neighbors being taken away to death camps and said nothing? Who kidnaps boys in Africa today and brutalizes them until they turn into killers? People not unlike us, that's who.

I am reminded of the famous Stanford experiment from 1971, wherein students were randomly divided into 2 groups--prisoners and guards. The experiment was supposed to last 2 weeks, but they had to stop it after 6 days because the students who were the guards became so cruel (although they were not allowed to physically hurt the prisoners) and the prisoners became so traumatized. These were normal, typical college students, no different, really, from our own friends, our own children.

And in all cases of mass evil, the common denominator that allowed it to happen (besides that of power) was that the people who were slaughtered or raped or mutilated were made out to be "others", less than human. In other words, those who committed the evil acts had absolutely no empathy for those whom they hurt.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Haiti Vs. Congo

I was going to write about how the overwhelming response to the earthquake disaster in Haiti gives us clear evidence that empathy is alive and well in the human population. We see millions of people suffering enormous loss, and we must respond, millions of us in return. We are compelled to help people we don't know at all, just because we can put ourselves in their place and imagine how awful it must be. Compassion is the empathetic response to bad things happening to other people, even people we will never meet.

And this is true, but...

Nicholas D. Kristof writes in the New York Times today about the humanitarian crisis happening in east Congo now, and contrasts the outpouring of support for the suffering people in Haiti to the indifference the world exhibits to the genocide and atrocities happening in Congo. He says that the civil war there has claimed 30 times the number of lives as has the earthquake in Haiti; he describes in vivid and sickening detail the savage murder of parents in front of their children, the kidnapping of young girls to sexually service the rebel soldiers, the rape of children. Extremist Hutu militias (remnants of those that committed the genocide in Rwanda) are brutally destroying the country and its people, and the world is, apparently, indifferent.


Some guesses:

--It's too alien, too far removed from our own experience here in the U.S. Natural disasters we know, we understand. We have tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes. We don't have roaming bands of lawless thugs breaking into our homes, eviscerating our husbands in front of our eyes, raping our wives as we are forced to watch, and carrying off our screaming 12-year-old daughter. (Although I write this from the safety of my suburban home. I acknowledge that people who live in our worst slums are subject to terror from gang members.)

--We don't see it. We see the Haitian disaster on TV, and it's a lot easier to respond with empathy to what you can see. Maybe if Steven Spielberg made a movie about Congo, we'd respond.

--Tribal warfare in Africa seems endless and unsolvable to most of us in the West. There are solutions to earthquake damage. The remedies are concrete: dig people out of rubble; send doctors; send food; send tents; send money. But what is the remedy for genocide, for rape on a massive scale? Send in our troops? Not going to happen. Send money? To whom? World wide awareness and outcry? Important, but will it make any difference in actually stopping it?

--One disaster was caused by natural events; the other by the most extreme human evil. We don't like to think about how evil we as a species can be. We want to distance ourselves from it, but in doing so we distance ourselves from the victims as well.

I wish I had some insightful answer. I don't. But I am highly grateful to Mr. Kristof for speaking up for the ravaged Congo people.