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How to Save the World.

In this wonderfully illustrated talk about "preparing the groundwork for an empathic civilization," Jeremy Rifkin discusses the evolution of empathy how it has shaped human development and how we interact. Check it out, then come back and we'll talk:

What he's saying here is that we need to broaden our sense of identity from selfish or tribal or religious or national identity to identifying as part of human civilization, as a fellow living being, as part of the Earth's biosphere - and I would add, as part of the Milky Way Galaxy, as part of the universe as a whole. He says that we are "soft-wired for sociability, attachment, affection, companionship," and that our "first drive is to belong. It's an empathic drive."

He summarizes, "If we are truly Homo Empathicus, then we need to bring out that core nature. Because if it doesn't come and out it's repressed by our parenting, our educational system, our business practices, our government, the secondary drives take over: the narcissism, materialism, utilitarianism, violence, and aggression."

This is the primary theme in all I write. It's what Transcendence is about, what Empire Ship is about, and what my upcoming young-adult SF books will be about - that we must be empathic in all we do, because all we produce (our "fictions," technology and nationalism (in its broadest sense) and religion build barriers to understanding one another. Those walls we build rise so naturally when we don't exercise empathy - which is hard! It hurts to feel the suffering around us - and the wall-building grows as we stifle our empathic capacity, thereby limiting our ability to see others as like us in some way, even as human.

Lack of understanding leads to lack of empathy. Lack of empathy leads to easy dehumanization (or de-bunny-ization or so forth). Next, our identity shrinks until at some point it shrivels down to just Me. Then selfish drives take over, and it feels right and sensible that all I care about is what I want, because I can't imagine what others would think or feel. Now it's easy to hurt others; it's easy to disregard others, to lock them away in dungeons, to steal from them or take advantage of them, to rape or kill them.

It's only natural that prisoners and victims develop powerful empathy for their abusers, because the victim's world makes no sense: Why would someone do this to me? So they grope for understanding, exercising their empathic powers, delving into the minds of their abusers. This is why we have Stockholm Syndrome, why people stay with their abusive parents or partners.

It also explains why people who consistently behave in sociopathic ways - guards at secret prisons, habitual criminals, investment bankers - appear to lose their humanity. It's why military training works hard to erase the humanity of the target, and why soldiers make poor police. In fact, I would like to see a study that seeks to cure "sociopaths," because I hypothesize that such people might be curable over time if they exercise their atrophied empathy.

The dude who wandered around the Middle East a couple thousand years ago preached love and understanding and forgiveness: He preached that we must exercise our empathy or we will descend into Hell, which - In a literal sense - means that our world will become horrific if we are incapable of understanding and empathizing with one another.

Saving the world is simple: The sooner we start embracing the people and animals and natural wonders around us as part of us, as our identity, the sooner we will solve all the problems facing us.

This is also what I love about science fiction: It is the literature of the human species, not limited to the individual or nation or religion or even species or planet. Taken as a whole, SF says that we are all in this together, and when we're not - and when we lose our capacity to think of us as in it together - things go to hell in a hurry. As our technology grows more powerful, so too does our capacity to dehumanize and destroy others.

The Cold War was so horrible because it institutionalized anti-empathy. All wars are like this, including the current "war on terror" (and we all know that, right now, that means against Islamic fundamentalism), which is worse in many ways because it is not nation vs. nation or ideology vs. ideology: It's Us vs. Them. There's no reasoning with that, and the side-effects are pervasive and creeping. We all know The Terrorists are evil, right? And they all know that the West is evil. There's no room for understanding when our walls rise up and meet at the top.

When we cease empathizing, when we lose the capacity to imagine the other as our self, we build mausoleums around our cultures, nations, religions, and everything else that constitutes our identity - around our very selves! But empathizing is hard, I know. Listening to the news is painful, because it's all about suffering and loss. As the Dread Pirate said, "Life is pain, princess. Anyone who says differently is selling something." Heck, every week I see an animal on the side of road, needlessly killed by inattentive drivers, and that makes me suffer a little more. When I can, I stop and move the dead thing to the bushes and tell it that it's safe now, but at a deeper level that's just for me, to ease my empathic suffering.

One can argue that the most selfish thing you can do is to empathize. But as Rifkin says, "To empathize is to civilize," so this is one need we should satisfy whenever we can.

To be able to feel others in our heart: This is what it means to love. When people say that love is what life is all about, that there's nothing greater than to love and be loved in return, they don't mean some cheesy Hallmark version of love; they mean empathize with each other. This is all that matters in life. This is how we save the world.

Go out and empathize today!



( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 4th, 2010 08:38 pm (UTC)
Animals do respond to suffering in others (even other species). They are distressed, they try to help.

Yet some scientists seem to think that this cannot be 'real' empathy unless the responding animal also has sense of 'self-hood' -- demonstrated by recognizing himself in a mirror, etc.

Why the extra step? Why not just take the behaviors (helpfulness etc) at face value?
Dec. 4th, 2010 11:32 pm (UTC)
Tangent - the "mirror test" for self-recognition shows how un-empathetic humans can be. Because we are visually oriented, we use the mirror standard and try to apply it to other animals. When they don't recognize a visual image as "self" we say they have no concept of self. But if dogs were applying their tests of self to us, they'd reach the same conclusion. I can't recognize my own footprints by their scent, but my dog knows his from any other dog's.
Dec. 4th, 2010 11:53 pm (UTC)
Re: Self-recognition
Ironic, isn't it?
Dec. 4th, 2010 11:53 pm (UTC)
Absolutely, and anyone who spends time with other animals can see that. It's probably why people who love dogs so much, well, why they love 'em.
Dec. 4th, 2010 08:53 pm (UTC)
Chris, that was great! Love and thanks to you. :)
Dec. 4th, 2010 11:54 pm (UTC)
Glad it moved you, too!
(Deleted comment)
Dec. 4th, 2010 11:54 pm (UTC)
Somebody had to be the humbug ;-)
Dec. 5th, 2010 07:31 am (UTC)
I have a cynical take on it, too. I don't think the author/speaker of the video is wrong, I just think he makes it too cut and dry. I don't see that he takes into account the fact that we have many people of all different stages of empathy alive at any and all eras of history. Or that there are people who understand what someone else is feeling just fine--they merely don't care about what the other person is feeling.

I like the overall message, but it was a little too simplistic for me to get more than a passing warm fuzzy from it. Unfortunately, I didn't find it as emotionally inspiring as mckitterick. But I think it's a fantastic springboard for discussion.
Dec. 5th, 2010 10:26 pm (UTC)
Weird. I see nothing.. so I can't check it out.

But I like what you wrote about whatever it was.

One question, and probably way off your topic, but... why do you think that soldiers don't make good police?
Dec. 5th, 2010 10:33 pm (UTC)
Odd, you have YouTube blocked? Here's a direct link to the video.

Soldiers are trained to be okay with killing other people, to do it on orders without questioning the order. Historically, when not properly eased back into civilization after war, they suffer a lot of emotional difficulty. Whenever soldiers are put into the position of protecting people (as opposed to tactical missions - where they often kill people), they're forced into uncomfortable situations. Militaries the world around have pressed soldiers into police duties to terrible results; you can see that in the US whenever the National Guard is called in to act like police - and they're not even trained as hard-core as, say, Marines.
Dec. 6th, 2010 12:13 am (UTC)

I get lots of youtube videos, and then once in awhile, I don't see one someone has posted. don't know why yet.

The reason I asked you is because law enforcement has been a traditional field for returning veterans, there's even a funding program called Troops to COPS.
I believe that there is a lot more awareness of the readjustment from military to police work these days, especially as many law enforcement reservists were called to action and returned to their jobs after combat missions.
Dec. 6th, 2010 12:16 am (UTC)
That sounds like a great program, and a great way to re-integrate into society after service. I was talking about active combat service members.
Dec. 6th, 2010 12:22 am (UTC)
ah.. I see. You mean while they are still active in the military, being called into law enforcement duties? Other than, of course, the military who are active in law enforcement such as the MPs, SPs etc?
Dec. 6th, 2010 12:53 am (UTC)
Right - when cops kill someone, they're put on administrative leave during investigation to make sure all was cool with the killing. When a soldier hesitates to kill someone, they're putting fellow soldiers in danger. Stick a soldier into a policing situation, and you get trouble. (MPs are special cases, and they're not public safety officers.) This is why officers hate it when political leaders put soldiers into situations where their training doesn't match what they need to do.

Any program that helps re-integrate combat veterans after war is a good thing.
Dec. 6th, 2010 10:25 am (UTC)
I pretty much agree with what you've written here. For most of history, people have known you shouldn't commit murder, lie, or cheat, but drew lines between themselves and who they said you could do these things to. What annoyed so many people about Buddha when he was alive, was that he said moral standards should be applied to everyone. He expected his followers, regardless of their gender or original caste, to treat each other as fully human.

He tried to erase those lines. So did Jesus, in some of his sayings.
Dec. 7th, 2010 07:10 am (UTC)
Buddha was pretty kick-ass, especially for his time.
Dec. 7th, 2010 12:14 am (UTC)
Ah! A subject near and dear to my heart! As we discussed at the '10 Campbell Conference (drunkenly, if my hazy memory is any indication), I feel that our future hinges on the issue of dealing with the sociopaths among us.

And, as we've discussed a bit on email, the soft science of psychology is rapidly becoming harder due to the technological advances like the MRI and the advances in understanding brain chemistry.

However, in this video at least, Rifkin gives us no hints or tools about how to deal with sociopaths. Like I've said, one of these things is not like the other, how do we determine it, and what do we do about it? How does Rifkin's philosophy/ideal, protect me from a sociopath robber-baron/yakuza/Dick Chenney?

Until we have an answer for that, it's just pie-in-the-sky dreaming, and those advances I mentioned above, are really going to come front and center in the next few decades (if not years) because they WILL be the tools that can detect the non-empathetic.

And then, what do we do with them? In Harry Harrison's STAINLESS STEEL RAT the technology exists to create an artificial conscious into a sociopath, but I don't know if that will ever really work out. And I have my doubts as to if, like you said, the vestigal sense of empathy can be strengthened- at least among certain people. They just don't have it.

And what do we do about them?

Dec. 7th, 2010 07:15 am (UTC)
I feel that we need to start young when dealing with kids exhibiting sociopathic tendencies. Not sure if we can work with those who've intentionally stunted their emotional growth. But I think people on the borderline, especially kids, can exercise their empathy and become better people. I think we can cure sociopathology, as we can cure other pathologies, with proper treatment.

But the robber barons and Dick Cheneys of the world? I dunno. I have hope, though. Stick them in a monestary with a Buddha and maybe.
Dec. 13th, 2010 03:04 am (UTC)
Stick them in a monestary with the Buddha and lock them away there for the rest of their life, maybe.

But that's one of the things that nobody wants to talk about-- what if it CAN'T be cured? What if, even in some children, it can't be cured?

What do you do with sociopaths that allows them to contribute to society and (more importantly) protects the members of society from them?
Dec. 13th, 2010 05:04 pm (UTC)
That's just the thing: We need to find out if they CAN be cured, and the only way is to test approaches for doing so.
Dec. 13th, 2010 02:25 am (UTC)
Yeah, it's a bit like the Way of the Leaf in the Wheel of Time. You might pledge to do no violence, but that won't stop people from coming to kill you and take all your stuff.

If you are empathic in a world full of non-empathic people, you lose. I can be empathic when a fellow human being breaks into my house and takes my television, or I can create a subgroup called "junkies' that I am not empathic towards, and call the police to throw them in jail; maybe this is dehumanising and maybe it is just not making excuses for humans who make poor choices when they should be placing more value on their one and only life.

Feeling other people's pain either means living a life of misery, because the world is full of pain, or limiting your empathy somehow.

Dec. 13th, 2010 03:08 am (UTC)
Very good points.

Sadly, I figure that most of us are sociopathic towards certain groups of people already, we don't extend them any empathy. I'm pretty much that way toward sociopaths.

Plus, like you say, empathizing with the bully's problems at home won't stop him from hitting you, so for that you've got to have a plan 'B'.
( 22 comments — Leave a comment )

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