Empathy Gap

photo: CNN.com

photo: CNN.com

My family and Bangladesh go way back: I lived in Bangladesh for a year when I was in my early twenties. A decade later, in an odd twist of fate, my sister moved to Bangladesh, too, and stayed there with her family for several years. Later, she made India her home for another four years, and my brother-in-law has also worked in Pakistan and Afghanistan. So I’m really invested in what’s going on in that region of the world despite, or because, of its long history of dysfunction –much, but not all, of it self-imposed. If you define empathy as the “ability to assume the perspective of another,”  you could say I have genuine empathy for the people in that part of the world.

I don’t want to be lectured about my naivete. I  know that Bangladesh has become increasingly radicalized; I know it’s riddled with corruption; I know that women in the Islamic world are routinely denied basic human rights (as are men, for the record.)  I well remember not only the extraordinary hospitality, humor, and kindness of my Bangladeshi hosts but also the hostile, leering men who routinely harassed me and on two occasions threw small stones at me when I ventured outside alone. I remember living there under martial law, when it wasn’t safe to go out (even by car) at night. I can’t help but remember those experiences when I read about the vicious sexual assault of South Asian women or yet another story of political chaos.

For all of these reasons, good and bad, I believe we need to cultivate more empathy for Bangladesh and its neighbors. We need to better understand the lived experiences of people in South Asia and, indeed, the whole world. To ignore them is to hurt ourselves.

When I took my teacher licensing exams in Massachusetts, there was a question that caused a lot of outrage for its ostensible trickiness. We were given a map of the world and asked to identify the Bay of Bengal. Students freaked out, even though the question was worded in such a way that anyone aspiring to be a teacher should have been able to deduce the answer by simply knowing, in contrast, the locations of the United Kingdom and Mexico.  Nonetheless, the ‘Bay of Bengal problem’ was forever held up in quasi-mystical tones as an example of how unreasonably hard and picayune the Massachusetts state licensure exams had become. I was alone among my peers in thinking that it wasn’t unreasonable that 21st century teachers in a pluralistic, immigrant society be able to identify a major body of water surrounding a sub-continent that houses 1/5th (or maybe more) of the world’s population.

photo: ABC News

photo: ABC News

I thought of this story this morning as I read the headlines about yet another factory collapse in Bangladesh (this one causing 250 deaths). It seems to me that more of us should learn about countries like Bangladesh that don’t regulate the construction of buildings, that are rife with corruption, that show contempt for their citizens. We should understand the ethical price we pay for cheap, literally disposable, clothing, for example. Women are burned alive so we can shop at the mall. In a connected world, we can’t keep pretending these events don’t affect us.

I keep reading about the empathy gap of young people but, actually, I think our whole country has an empathy gap. The Islamic world increasingly hates us – even Muslims who have a basic love for the United States and its values – because, among other things, we drop bombs fairly indiscriminately on innocent people.

Drone burned in Effigy in Yemen (Photo: Reuters, via the Atlantic).

Drone burned in Effigy in Yemen (Photo: Reuters, via the Atlantic).

I know, I know: we’re not deliberately trying to kill people with drone strikes and their ilk. We’re not “terrorists,” okay? So why, exactly, are we escalating our drone program, Mr. Obama? Not only because drones (arguably) prevent greater loss of life to American soldiers but because we are fighting the good fight, right? That’s the party line. We’re still the City on the Hill. We’re in a fight for our basic tenets as a civilization blah blah blah… Um, I think this rings a little hollow when, meanwhile back at the ranch, we are denying suspected criminals their constitutional rights and are still unable to face our history of willful, deliberate pro-torture policies in the 2000s. But in any case, we’re not making things easy for our overseas allies either.

As 22 year-old Yemeni democracy activist, Farea al-Muslimi, explained to a Senate committee hearing on drone strikes:

“I don’t know if there is anyone on earth that feels more thankful to America than me…In my heart, I know I can only repay the opportunities, friendship, warmth, and exposure your country provided me by being their ambassadors to Yemenis for the rest of my life…I strongly believe that I have helped improve America’s image, perhaps in ways that an official ambassador or other diplomats cannot…I have access to ordinary Yemenis. For me, helping the people of my country understand and know the America that I have experienced is a passion, not a career.

(But the Obama Administration’s drone strikes in Yemen) “have made my passion and mission in support of America almost impossible and done more to empower al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula than to weaken it.”

photo: NYTimes

photo: NYTimes

To be clear: I am not suggesting that terrorists like the Tsarnaev brothers are remotely justified in their murderous rages. But I think it’s vitally important to understand the source of that rage which can become so horribly twisted.  We can’t keep spouting platitudes about how much the rest of the world “hates freedom.” News flash: most people love and want freedom – the freedom not to be blown to smithereens, for example. Look at the rage we feel from the Boston Marathon bombings. For most of us not directly affected, it’s a disproportionate rage compared to the thousands of murders and negligent deaths that happen all around us every day which don’t seem to trouble us much at all.

I think we Americans need to come to grips with what it feels like for regular people in Iraq and Afghanistan who feel similarly assaulted by our drone strikes. Do we really expect them to step back and say, “Hey, no hard feelings! I totally get that you are the good guys.” That’s a dangerously wrong-headed assumption that comes from a fundamental lack of empathy: an inability to assume the perspective of another human being, another country.

photo: Washington Post

photo: Washington Post

Last week’s hearing on the drone program was remarkable for its transparency and surprising bipartisan response. Yet the public barely blinked as we heard that a program that started to attack specific al-Qaeda targets has evolved to become, “a kind of counter-insurgency air force.” The balance of costs of waging war just got shifted dramatically, essentially lowering the threshold for attacking other countries, and no one seems to notice or care.

Americans are culturally vengeful. We have a long history of comparatively disproportionate responses to (occasionally only perceived) individual wrongdoing. It’s probably rooted in our unwavering belief in individual, not structural, agency. We like to extract our pound of flesh in particular when we see wrongdoing perpetrated by a specific someone we can identify, like the guy who was executed yesterday for abducting and killing a man in a robbery when he was 18 years-old. It’s much harder to hold an amorphous corporation or government responsible for the negligent deaths of, say, all those Texans in the fertilizer plant blast. We see this cultural vengeance in all kinds of ways. The continued, though dwindling, support for the death penalty is proof enough of this cultural tic but there are other examples: Alone among industrialized nations, we often subject the accomplices of murder, even unwitting ones, to the exact same charges and convictions as the person who actually pulls the trigger. We also put nearly 100,000 youth in solitary confinement every year. We only recently stopped officially executing mentally handicapped teenagers. We even see it in those multiple, hundreds-year life sentences that can sometimes seem like theatre, not justice.

Well, fine, then. If this “eye for an eye” approach is the way we want to do business, I think we have to get a lot more familiar with the consequences of our aggression.

Our lack of empathy is killing us.

About ErikaChristakis

Yale Lecturer in early childhood education/Licensed teacher/Former preschool director and Harvard College house master/some-time journalist. In possession of: unmarketable bachelor’s degree (Harvard, anthropology), semi-marketable graduate degrees (public health, education…). Rewarding career at the intersection of family, society, and schools (including long stint in parenting vortex). Forging a new path to connect all of the above.
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3 Responses to Empathy Gap

  1. Dave Hussar says:

    Doesn’t empathy tend to be more self serving then effective? It seems that cheap cell phones and t-shirts have saved more lives in Africa then signing “We are the world”

    • Now, now.. Why would you twist the meaning of my words? Or perhaps you want to have a semantic debate about the term “empathy.” In either case, I think you know I’m not talking about celebrity telethons! I’m not even making an economic argument, though it’s insensitive to brush off the people who are locked in factories and burned to a crisp to stock our shelves. And there’s a strong economic argument that our unfair agricultural policies keeping products priced artificially low cause more harm than selling t-shirts can compensate for.

      However, I’ll grant you that by most measures, people in the developing world are better off economically (especially in Africa) than 20 years ago. What I’m talking about is the ability to assume the perspective of others, which involves putting to bed certain silly assumptions, like the one that reassures us that just because people are “better off” in some generic sense, we shouldn’t worry about doing business with a country that doesn’t have building codes. It involves dispensing with the tedious canard that the majority of Muslims around the world, “hate our freedom.” No, they hate our drone strikes. Some of them hate other things, for sure, and you won’t find me defending terrorists. But we are turning our friends against us. This is neither a liberal, nor conservative, nor libertarian argument, so cheap shots aren’t necessary. (Look at who saw eye to eye at the drone hearing. It gave new meaning to the term ‘bipartisan.’) I think understanding the perspective of non-Americans involves understanding why so many people who love the United States, in theory, have grown to hate it in reality. It requires us to understand that when a parent’s child becomes collateral damage in an increasingly expanded stealth bombing campaign, the reasons are largely incomprehensible and unimportant; their grief is independent of our policies. This lack of what we call in the education biz “perspective taking’ is why our Yemeni friend who gave testimony to the senate has his work cut out for him. The Islamic world is not seeing the fruits of our interventions. Au contraire. We ignore this — call it empathy or something else – at our peril.

  2. shorelineliz says:

    Dear Erika,

    We do have an empathy gap. I see it every day in the callous way people do business. They seem unable to get out of their own heads to think of others, to put themselves in someone else’s place, to “walk a mile in someone else’s moccasins” and so forth. I detest these drones. They are cowardly. It is cowardly to send a drone to kill someone and immoral. If you are going to make war on someone tell them. Tell them outright. Tell them why. Give them time to defend themselves. Then prepare for a storm. Face them personally. Don’t send a machine to gun them down. In times of war, and I believe WWII was necessary, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Sneak attack. Didn’t declare war. Just attacked. Cowardly. We used to have rules for such things. Now they send drones. They don’t even send men to face other men. They just have a “kill list’ and send a machine. I would prefer that no one go to war but I am not that naive. People will make war on each other. For any number of reasons. In my father’s time, WWII, men faced each other down. Today’s world is cowardly. And it has no empathy. It seems if someone is attacked by a drone “they deserve it” and “Karma” is used to explain everything. The facts of the case are lost in the attack. The Good Book prophesied this that “hearts would grow cold, unfeeling, and unable to listen to sound teaching.” Not only do we have to stop this drone program from the United States but we have to help people in Islamic nations to stop using their women and children as suicide bombers and shields. They put women and children in ammunition buildings hoping they won’t be targeted but they are. They send little children in the Middle East out to convoys with bombs strapped to them to blow up American soldiers. Islam needs to look at their “faith” as do we in America. If we say we are “Christian” then why are we in the Middle EAst? Why were we in Iraq and still in Afghanistan? oil? What? We need to look at what our Foreign Policy is doing around the world. Who we give money and Foreign Aid to and what dictatorships do we prop up? We have to change the Washington, DC culture, our laws, our government. But, no one seems to have the political will to do so. Every four years we get the same old, same old. Nothing changes. To our peril.

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