Empathy and Weak Ties

empathy

Maybe it's the new movie about Mark Zuckerberg and the origin of Facebook that is triggering all sorts of stories about the nature of social relationships, but, in any case, they are all over the media and the cybersphere. One of the students at Marlboro posted a podcast by Jeremy Rifkin about empathy, and today the front page story in the "Ideas" section of the Boston Globe had one, "The empathy deficit," by Keith O'Brien.

Rifkin thinks the new era of distributed computing technology, with capabilities like Google Earth, will make us more connected and therefore more empathetic. He thinks that this should make us hopeful about the future. He sees a direct link between increased Internet conectedness with the growth of distributed energy systems drawing on the Sun that will replace fossil fuels and save us from eventual collapse. Empathy is the link. But, he mistakes connectedness for empathy. It's the kind of linkages that matter. He notes that soon after the first pictures of the blue Earth were made available from NASA, the striking images were pinned up on millions of walls. But judging from the decline of the Planet's health since that event, the connections haven't changed our unsustainable, harmful behaviors.

The Globe article points to data indicating that our society is getting less empathic, that is, our caring for others is diminishing. The data seem valid, but the implications of this trend are both unclear and hard to explain. The rise of the social media, like Facebook, is frequently blamed, and is the focus of the Globe article. I wrote recently of the inability of the weak ties that social media create to underpin oppositional actions. As I see it, weak ties are those relationships are less empathic or lack it altogether. The strength of interpersonal ties seems directly related to empathy: our sense of and connectedness to what another is feeling, often stated as putting ourselves into another's shoes. I would say it more about putting ourselves into another's state of mind.

Perhaps more than any other characteristic, one’s capacity for empathic concern dictates how much one cares about others. Those who score high in empathic concern, according to past research, are more likely to return incorrect change to a cashier, let someone else ahead of them in line, carry a stranger’s belongings, give money to a homeless person, volunteer, donate to a charity, look after a friend’s pet or plant, or even live on a vegetarian diet. And what’s alarming, Konrath said, is that empathic concern has fallen more than any other aspect of empathy. Between 1979 and 2009, according to the new research, empathic concern dropped 48 percent.
It might be said that it is empathy that makes us aware of others' suffering, if we think of suffering as a sense that there is something wrong that could be made right. It's that possibility that powers empathy--my caring can be converted to some action to make your world right. Caring is always about acting to making things work in some way that would perfect an incomplete state of affairs. This is the critical tie of empathy to flourishing. Flourishing is a state where suffering recedes into the background. Suffering is never gone forever, simply because no living creature is immortal, and the sense of loss is is felt by humans and other highly developed species as well. So empathy is tightly linked to sustainability: the possibility of flourishing for long periods. Weak ties lack empathetic power. Perhaps that is the way we should define them. Social media may have the ability to create strong, empathetic ties, but that's not what they seem to be doing in the main.
These students, Konrath points out, would have been born in the 1980s, raised in the ’90s on video games, 24-hour cable television, and widespread divorce, and sent off to college with laptops and cellphones — the young pioneers of the digital age. Perhaps, some suggest, technology has connected them in one sense, but pushed them away from each other in another. “It’s very shallow, a lot of these connections,” said Jean Twenge, coauthor of “The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.” “You don’t really have an emotional connection with someone on Facebook.”

The emotional aspect is very important. My thinking for some time and an underlying grounding for my book rest on a description of emotions as the drivers for non-routine actions. Most of our life consists of actions stored in our cognitive database that we access for all our familiar everyday activities. Empathetic encounters with others means we have put ourselves in their frame of mind and thus cannot rely on our normal resources. What happens next is attributed to emotions simply because it appears to be unexpected and not coming from one's reason faculties.

Unsustainability is a consequence of doing the expected all the time, ignoring the "suffering" being produced. Here I use suffering as seen by abject poverty, addiction of all kinds, species loss, habitat loss, leading undignified lives and so on. We able to break out of our usual routines and avoid their damaging unintended consequences only when we get into an empathetic stance with that suffering, and act emotionally, as some observers might say of us. Unfortunately, emotional responses are often spoken of pejoratively by our ultra-rational cultural voice. If we see emotional acts as driven by empathy with the suffering of whatever it is we care about, then it is exactly those emotions that are critical. No empathy, no emotions. No emotions, no creative actions--only the old, worn-out, but familiar, routines. If we accepted crying as a positive, acceptable response to certain emphatic encounters, perhaps Ed Muskie would have become President in 1972. Sustainability will not come to be without accepting and nurturing empathetic relationships, and seeing the emotional outcomes as the very creative actions we so desperately need. The weak ties of social media simply don't have the power to do this.

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