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Unleashing the Power of Empathetic Imagination



Authors as Published

Marc Thomas wrote provocatively in last week’s Re: Reflections and Explorations commentary (at that empathetic imagination represents a crucial response to the challenge of racism, a particularly virulent endemic form of “othering” in the United States and elsewhere. Marc pointed out that neuroscientists are finding that humans innately possess capacity to empathize. Since human beings also evidence large capabilities for hatred, jealousy, avarice and the like, the challenge, as Marc suggested, is to find ways to educate and acculturate citizens to empathize rather than to hate. In a free society, this process must occur while maximizing the space for those individuals to make choices for themselves.

More, since these proclivities are usually at least epistemic, if not ontologic in character, they are difficult to change. To the extent such norms and values are passed inter-generationally, they demand that citizens adopt a new frame if change is to occur. And surely, as Marc argued, enjoying opportunities to interact with the “other” will assist in breaking down barriers born of ignorance, rather than perpetuating ill will. But there are obvious challenges to securing this pragmatic result and unleashing empathy, including the nation’s sharply racially segregated neighborhoods, and political leaders’ and parties’ inclination to use difference as a “wedge” mobilizing device. As I have argued previously, history is littered with instances of popularly supported tyranny predicated on human capacity for hatred and desire for apparent “power over” others. There will always be would-be leaders in democracies desirous of gaining power by sowing distrust, acrimony and hatred.

Beneath this concern lie at least two additional challenges. First human beings are sense-making creatures. Humans build their epistemic frames around powerful narratives that allow us to develop a shared understanding of our place in the world, and these often root us deeply in race, tribe, national group, ethnicity or shared attributes with others in our social spaces at all scales. Humans hold tightly to the norms that help them understand reality and this seems especially the case when those so ensconced do not have opportunities to learn anything different or to gain the critical capacities to test their framing assumptions and stories. These frames will not change if never examined.

In particular, and put bluntly, provincialism, privatism and ignorance are the enemies of empathy and empathetic imagination. It is difficult to come to regard strangers with openness if one knows only a constricted world and views all else with fear or indifference or both. Likewise, it is difficult to empathize with others if one is convinced, consciously or not, that an inward-oriented selfishness connotes power and success (a frame often and increasingly adopted and pressed in American politics as a celebration of the energy of capitalism). And finally, ignorance, by definition, disallows individuals the capacity to rise above prejudice and discrimination based on fear.

This analysis suggests that much afoot in American politics now runs directly counter to developing sharpened capacities for empathy in the nation’s population. First, the best known forums for allowing children to develop such imaginative capabilities—exposure to history, politics and literature and poetry of all sorts—are now in bad odor with political leaders in favor of so-called core subjects: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. I have no difficulty with any of these subjects or disciplines, but none teaches anything about the character and challenges of the human condition or of democratic self-governance. This trend in education rests on the faulty assumption that a democracy can educate for the market place while ignoring the living conditions and requisites for assuring its population’s freedom. Empathy is never developed in a vacuum, and one may not assume that simply ignoring the inherent and difficult challenges confronting its acculturation will result in beneficial social outcomes.

Second, while the market is a mighty engine of social organization, it cannot govern. Nor does it serve self-governance to contend ad nauseum that a market-centered selfishness can substitute for a disciplined responsibility to the commons. It cannot. Finally, our election campaigns, drawing on lessons gleaned from marketing, are now as often framed around pillorying opponents as they are around offering any positive notions for the roles that governance can play in society. To the extent that these dominate public rhetoric and narrative they are unlikely to encourage an empathetic response among dissimilar groups mobilized around scapegoating and blame-casting claims against others in society. Empathy is indeed a critical human attribute, but it is not magic and it must be supported if it is to play socially beneficial roles, both for ensuring the conditions for peace and for self-governance. One may hope our policy-makers will soon begin to understand this reality and begin to behave accordingly.

Publication Date

April 7, 2013