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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.