Empathy: without it, we are blind

In Canada today, new Liberal leader Justin Trudeau suggested that when a tragedy like the Boston Marathon bombings occurs, society should examine the root causes of these events. His rationale was as follows:

“There is no question that this happened because there is someone who feels completely excluded. Completely at war with innocents. At war with a society. And our approach has to be, okay, where do those tensions come from?”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, on the other hand, believes that the idea of thinking analytically about the origin of violence is somehow frivolous, prescribing this approach instead:

“You condemn it categorically, and to the extent you can deal with the perpetrators, you deal with them as harshly as possible.”

For conservatives like Harper, justice is synonymous only with punishment. People who subscribe to this mindset fail to grasp that attempting to understand something and condoning it are two very different things. One approach seeks to form a holistic view of how something has come about, whereas the other only takes into account the end result, ignoring critical elements such as motivation and process.

The key here is the distinction between empathy and sympathy, two concepts that many people seem to confuse. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines them respectively as such:

Empathy: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience

Sympathy: an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other

Empathy involves imagining yourself in a situation so that you can understand how someone is feeling and thinking. Sympathy implies some level of agreement or sameness of mind. Empathizing, therefore, is not equivalent to supporting, justifying or rationalizing. Rather than simply imposing one’s own judgment on a situation, one steps back and recognizes the broader reality as it relates to all those involved. MP Stella Ambler is one of those conservatives who completely misses the point when she says, “There is no root cause and no tension that justifies the killing and maiming of innocent civilians.” No one is saying there is.

No person or decision exists in isolation. Every decision we make is the result of any number of factors, some of which are influenced by others directly or indirectly. In any given situation, even one factor involved in a decision could influence how we choose to act. If we don’t acknowledge certain factors as a society (for example, the statistical relationship between poverty and crime), we can’t identify opportunities to prevent the negative conditions that may lead to harmful actions.

Having empathy means acknowledging that what happened at the Boston Marathon on Monday was horrible and shocking. It’s tragically unfair that people, including children, lost their lives and were injured. For some people the torment will never end. Emotional responses are perfectly understandable. I can imagine why a person would respond with rage and hysteria, but that doesn’t mean I will encourage those behaviours. I certainly won’t make the situation any better if I act as though what a person is feeling or has experienced – no matter how irrational or contrary to my own views – doesn’t matter. The fact is, it matters to them, and because it matters to them, depending on what they choose to do about it, it could matter to others as well.

Understanding and empathy have nothing to do with being a ‘bleeding heart’ or a coward. Quite the opposite; it takes courage to address serious problems fundamentally and directly. It involves moving beyond passion and arbitrary judgment and coming to terms with reality, no matter how complicated and scary it may be. This is how a just, conscious society deals with difficult issues.

Without empathy, we experience but do not understand action and reaction, cause and effect. If the only response we know is to become increasingly tenacious and ruthless, we will feed a vicious cycle that brings no benefit and only creates more misery. Without empathy, we are blind.

Source: Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau exchange barbs over Boston bombing, Toronto Star

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Filed under Canada, Eastern Philosophy, Health & Environment, Politics & Society

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