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“How can anyone be so cruel?” Do you ever ask yourself that question when you see people who were once close resorting to meanness and violence? In nasty divorces, where does empathy go when you shut the marriage door? And when group hostility goes way beyond meanness into horrors such as mass murder or genocide, we shake our heads. How can normal people be inhumanly sadistic with former neighbors, friends, and sometimes family? How can normal teenagers be seduced into becoming terrorists?
Last night my husband and I watched “Why Do I Need You?” a segment from a PBS TV series called The Brain in which Dr. David Eagleman explores why people need people. He explains that our brains need the stimulation provided by the input of other people’s brains—making us all into a kind of huge human tapestry or complex consciousness like the intelligence described in the film AVATAR. Skipping through history, Eagleman outlines many examples of the wanton murder of millions—men, women, children, and babies–with no greater reasons than differing racial backgrounds, religions, or ethnicities. Americans grimace at the nightmare of the Holocaust (probably the genocide most widely recognized in this country), but are we immune? Can genocide—the murder of an entire ethnic group—happen here? (Of course, some would say it already has.)
Dr. Eagleman pointed out a region in the front of our brains where we exercise our ability to put ourselves in someone else’s place, to empathize, to care. But that region can turn off. We stop seeing particular people as human—the ex-wife/husband, the snitch, the homeless, the people “over there”—especially those who are coming here, or maybe the people who are too rich or too poor. How? The most common way to poison lots of minds is with propaganda.
Look on Facebook. You’ll see PLENTY of posts that ooze with hatred—for Muslims or homosexuals or even the President of the United States (I’m not talking about mere disapproval here). Propaganda is a media campaign to persuade us selected individuals or groups are enemies. The people who share those posts/tweets, etc. have innocently fallen prey to manipulation. Using bad logic (whenever you read the words “never” or “always,” be suspicious) filled with distortions and often outright lies, propaganda feeds on fear. It implies that these people (fill in a suspicious group of your choice) will somehow take away something you want or disrespect something you have. They are CERTAINLY less deserving than you—which your brain understands to mean they are less human.
The simple truth is we are equally human—all of us, mixtures of good and not-so good. If you research the DNA far enough, we’re related. But if we truly believed that we’re all one colorful, occasionally dysfunctional family in which the members are responsible for loving one another, we might be reluctant to fight wars. Those who crave power couldn’t seize what they want without help. And so we’re set against one another.
Sometimes we set ourselves apart by feeling different. When I identified myself as being different from those around me, I unwittingly set myself up to be attacked on a social level. I gave the people around me reason to turn off their empathy for me. In a way, I had disrespected them first by isolating myself.
We all have a basic human need to belong—so we’re happy to cling to people who believe/live/think as we do, but that can create invisible barriers if we don’t remember that those divisions are superficial. We have to resist the temptation to accept ourselves as superior—or inferior, for that matter. Even if we don’t embrace the concept of spiritual Oneness (“Do unto others…”) or our genetic relationship, we’re still all human beings stuck on this tiny globe where anything we do to someone else will come back on us one day. What can we do to keep our empathy turned ON so that we never stop caring when toddlers drown or children die of thirst in the desert or women are raped? I’d really like to know.
Beautiful. A rich message eloquently put. Lovley.
I read an article where researchers found that after reading fiction, people were more empathetic.
The ability to imagine yourself in someone else’s position can be enhanced, if we value empathy in the first place.