Freelance Writer, Editor and Professor
Empathy or Violence
In recent years there has been an explosion in the number of discussions of bullying, gun violence and the general problem of why our American culture retains a violent component which is fairly central to the whole. In the past tired arguments about everything from television to video games have tried to pin the blame on media, or modern lifestyles, or anything except a generally pathologically violent culture.
I get it; as tough as it would be to ban guns or video games, for example, it would be infinitely more difficult to fix this cultural issue. And I won’t say there’s definitely no correlation. I’m just saying that media isn’t the whole answer.
In the most recent spate of discussion of bullying in the United States, experts overwhelmingly agree that teaching empathy and respect for differences between people is the only real answer to the problem. In fact, detailed curriculum designed for grades K though 5 has been developed with this goal in mind, and it is reportedly excellent. (*Here is one for middle school I didn’t have as I published.)
Sadly, it sits on the shelf in the Janitor’s closet, basically, because as many of us have come to suspect, our schools are in a bit of trouble as well. Since teachers are pushed to their limits and teaching already unprepared students with the overarching goal of passing tests, there is no time or energy left over for empathy lessons.
The fact is, we need them.
Empathy in Americans Is Dwindling
Sara H. Konrath of the University of Michigan released this study called “Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-analysis,” in 2011. Konrath found that the empathy of Americans has been shrinking, at least since 1980 when the data she analyzed started. The biggest drops began in 2000, indicating things are getting worse rather than better on the empathy front. Charmingly, what has been called a narcissism epidemic has been blossoming in the U.S. at the same time.
It’s a toxic combination.
It feels like bullying happens more than it used to, doesn’t it? Actually, the advent of the Internet and social media add not only a new forum for bullying that is essentially consequence-free but also make bullying more public, which probably explains much of the reason we are feeling a bullying explosion.
But since virtually all experts on bullying say that teaching children to empathize more is the only way to effectively fight bullying in the longterm, maybe the drop in empathy correlates to the jump in bullying more than the Internet or media ever could.
If social context has a profound effect on the development of empathy and can shape even our most simple, everyday emotional responses, how did this happen? Konrath has a few ideas, one of which being the national trend away from social, group activities and toward social isolation. The number of American adults who read for pleasure is also shrinking, most quickly amongst young adults.
The reading thing matters. In 2011 York University Psychologist Raymond Mar found that reading and empathy appear to be correlated. Specifically he discovered a direct relationship between a young child’s aptitude for understanding other peoples’ emotions and the number of stories they read. Mar has also found that adults increase their ability to empathize as they read more fiction. (See his work here.) These trends also reflect the way that we learn by example, and reminds us that empathy can be learned and changed.
Policing Ourselves and Others: Insider and Outsider Status
Discourse reinforces power and ideology. History is culturally-situated, and as we’ve been told, it is written by the winners. After all, winners are overwhelmingly the only ones able to write it.
The Panopticon, designed by Jeremy Bentham, was a futuristic prison which featured a central tower with cells ringed around it. The one person in the tower was able to see inside the many cells. The Panopticon works by training the inmates to behave according to whatever rules are placed upon them. Even though the tower watcher can’t possibly always be watching everyone, inmates modify their own behavior because it’s enough that they might be watched. Eventually they police themselves and each other.
The Panopticon was never built although many modern prisons share many of its design features just as do many modern office structures. Michel Foucault uses the Panopticon and what he phrases Panopticism as metaphors for the practical experience of power and surveillance in our everyday lives: “[Panopticism] is. . .a type of power that is applied to individuals in the form of continuous individual supervision. . .[t]his threefold aspect of panopticism – supervision, control, correction – seems to be a fundamental and characteristic dimension of the power relations that exist in our society.
The Panopticon is a wonderful metaphor for the way power works in everyday situations. We watch each other for deviance from the norm and react badly to those who stray out of the set categories we are used to. Even when no one in authority is watching you, you police your own actions and the actions of those around you. Eventually this attention morphs into a set of social rules that must be followed to avoid social punishment.
Anthropologist Mary Douglas explained in her book Purity and Danger that if you take “dirt” as an abstraction, separate from “pathogenicity and hygiene,” we come to see that dirt is simply matter out of place. The naming of the dirty in a society reinforces social boundaries, like where the borders of in and out groups lie. Every day acts of excluding others and clinging to insider/outsider identities become cultural rituals that perpetuate social norms and values.
The deep-seeded need for order and taxonomy is natural for humans. When we can be clear about what peg goes into what hole, even if we force the pegs to suit our own ideas about others, this kind of thinking reduces fear and uncertainty. Evolutionary biology explains to us that as humans evolved this drive to classify things and other people might have helped people choose more risk-averse paths and maximize their chances of survival.
But it’s not like that anymore. Most of us aren’t in life or death situations which require instantaneous judgments about friend or foe in 2013. The drive to classify rather than observe and think critically even in the face of overwhelming evidence that this strategy is now counterproductive wins out, in large part because evolution is slow.
The attention to context is important. My daughter’s book resting in her bookcase isn’t dirty, but on the kitchen table or in a bathtub it is. One could argue, well, yes, that’s true, but this kind of labeling and classification serves a purpose. If everything is put away in its place we can navigate terrain that is more predictable.
Mary Douglas also studied Jewish dietary codes from Deuteronomy and Leviticus and rejected the common idea that hygiene was the basis for these rules. Instead, she was convinced that the unclean animals were all anomalous which rendered them unclean. Sea creatures without fins and scales? They defy classification and are therefore unclean. Like matter out of place, disturb our sense of order, they are dangerous, polluting, and taboo.
Furthermore, dietary laws become a shibboleth for determining who has insider status in any given situation—and who doesn’t.
If we can’t empathize, we can’t see others who are different from us or otherwise unclassifiable as anything but bad. Not fitting in really does make a child a target, and that signals dirtiness and danger to anyone who can’t empathize and put themselves in the target’s shoes. Anyone who doesn’t fit into categories that rule our society unwittingly challenges our cultural taxonomy and causes confusion. With the confusion comes danger. A world without clear boundaries is out of control.
In 2008 researchers reported that amongst the urban fifth graders studied confidence in being able to seek help or walk away from escalating conflict and violent situations was related to less violent behavior: “Attention to, and understanding of others emotional states apparently allows for increased confidence that one can negotiate violent situations without fighting which, in turn, reduces violent behavior.” Empathy, again, is the key.
In terms of when we do or don’t feel empathy, research shows that parenting matters. Multiple studies show that kids who receive attachment parenting from whoever raises them show better empathy and coping skills as well as moral understandings that are more highly developed. In other words, they have a conscience. Attachment parenting models a high level of empathy.
Modeling empathy and respect for differences is crucial. Exposing kids to positive multicultural experiences and good reference books about this is helpful. This is especially true for parents of bullies because they may be lacking the social and emotional skill to teach everything their children need without help.
Not all parents are equally equipped to teach empathy, unfortunately. This seems especially so given that over s thirty year span, ample time for a generation to age and begin to rear its own children, empathy in Americans fell so sharply as narcissism increased. This generation is flying blind when it comes to empathy as they raise their own children, and they probably don’t even know it.
To me, these issues feel far more salient to discussions about bullying and violence amongst children and adults alike—yes, including gun violence. I worry that things like regulation of guns will distract us from the real problems we have looming ahead. This is not to say that I oppose regulation of weapons, but that I am not so hopeful that without a turnaround in American empathy it will help us that much.