Lack of Empathy: An American Delusion

What if I am the enemy who must be loved?

  
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There comes a point in the wake of a cruelty or injustice when I start to wonder about my adversary.

Why did they say that? Do that? Act that way? What’s in it for them? What’s underneath that behavior?

When I was younger, my mind automatically turned them into demons. If you hurt me, there was no room to see you as anything other than evil. But now I see that evil demons don’t exist, only wounded people reacting to past hurts.

I like TV shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad because they show the complexity and humanity of the ‘bad guys.’ I’m not suggesting that we should praise the villains among us. But we should seek to understand them.

Because to paraphrase Carl Jung,

“what if I am the enemy who must be loved?”

Acts of Evil are Banal  

I recall Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil. Arendt covered the war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann, a mass-murdering bureaucrat who displayed no guilt for his actions in the Holocaust and simply claimed he was trying to do his job.

Eichmann was neither a fanatic nor a sociopath, but strikingly normal. He could have made a different moral choice but chose instead to follow orders. He compartmentalized his actions because they aligned with the norms of the system in which he operated, an institution to which he had pledged his allegiance.

Arendt assessed Eichmann as “thoughtless,” and reported that he had an inability to think from the other’s point of view.

I read this as Eichmann lacked empathy.

It struck me that this empathy deficit could be close to the core of our current dilemma.

  • Anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers come from a lack of empathy.

  • Exploitation and greed come from a lack of empathy. Then we gaslight victims of systemic impoverishment with classism.

  • All forms of bigotry (racism, sexism, xenophobia, etc.) come from a lack of empathy.

In her book See No Stranger, author Valarie Kaur claims that when people no longer see ‘others’ as part of them, they “disable their instinct for empathy. And once they lose empathy, they can do anything to them, or allow anything to be done to them. Entire institutions built to preserve the interests of one group of people over another depend on this failure of imagination."

Systemic oppression and the gradual normalization of evil can occur anywhere, any time, and at any scale. This is what the banality of evil shows us.

We commit banal acts of evil every day with our microaggressions. Whether paper cuts or lacerations, over time, enough slices can take down the tree.

An American Delusion

Lack of empathy is ironically self-destructive. It’s actually self-sabotage.

Scientists have proven that all beings are made of energy and are thus interconnected. COVID-19 has viscerally illustrated this concept of interconnectedness. We are all invisibly a part of one another.

This is why multiple world religions counsel us to ‘love thy neighbor,’ ‘open our tent to all,’ ‘take in the orphan,’ practice ‘unending compassion,’ and ‘love without limit.’ It’s why our teachers taught us the Golden Rule. It’s why Steven Covey’s 5 Habits instructed us to seek first to understand then to be understood.

As Kaur summarizes, “you are a part of me I do not yet know.”

Yet our society conditions us to separate ourselves from the other. Social media, disinformation, and capitalism run amok reinforce this illusion.

Asking one to wear a mask to prevent the spread of a deadly infectious disease is a minor inconvenience, not a question of self-governance. We know that self-regard is putting your needs over others, but not wearing a mask puts others at risk.

However, anti-maskers/vaxxers don’t realize that their behavior is ultimately also to their own detriment. It has prolonged the pandemic and added unnecessary stress to the economy. Whether the virus kills them, harms their business, or prevents them from fully enjoying life, they feel the effects one way or another. And no amount of blame-shifting can change that reality.

This is a form of American delusion — one where deranged ideas of liberty and excessive self-interest have disastrous consequences.

Democracy Needs Empathy

"When I was a child, it was clear to me that life was not worth living if we did not know love... But it was love's absence that let me know how much love mattered." – bell hooks

Now when I get hurt, I wonder about the one who harmed me because I know what it’s like to be the perpetrator. I have committed my own acts of banal evil, motivated by self-protection in reaction to past wounds.

When I started seeing from the other’s point of view, it mitigated my retaliation instinct and transmuted cycles of abuse and pain. And doing so helps me learn more about myself and the world around me. If we’re all invisibly ‘connected,’ we can discover much about ourselves through our interactions with each other.

Some scholars argue that democracy needs empathy to thrive. ‘Us vs. Them’ rhetoric is one of autocracy’s oldest tricks.

The conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers among us won’t suddenly change course because we present them with facts and call them stupid.

Instead, we should ask ourselves why they see the world the way they do. Why did they say that? Do that? Act that way? What’s in it for them? What’s underneath that behavior?

As much as we need their empathy, they need ours too. They’re a part of the body politic as much as we are. Simply writing them off doesn’t solve the problems of populism and pandemic. It perpetuates our collective self-sabotage.

If we dig a little deeper beneath the surface, we can learn much about how we got here and why. Perhaps we can get closer to the solutions.

If acts of evil are banal, and America is truly exceptional, then shouldn’t we strive to be better?