The act of projecting yourself instinctively into a situation that someone else or many people are undergoing physically, emotionally and psychologically, and by your imagination identify with others and experience the same feeling (though to a lesser degree) is what we may call empathy.
Generally, we all have the potential to put ourselves in other people’s places except the one per cent of psychopaths among us, those who suffer from some genetic deficiency, chronic ill-treatment, and those who deliberately switch off to a suspension of empathy by subscribing to a political or religious ideology which advocates cruelty to others.
The progress of mankind rests upon feeling, and subsequently understanding fellow men, sensible people might claim. But as almost everything is relative, our enthusiasm for a noble sentiment can be biased, chauvinistic and narrow-minded. Undoubtedly, at a global level, we are all united to save the planet from being engulfed under waters and for our own survival. Otherwise, nobody is expected to feel for seven billion people in the same way! Is it right? Or is it just empathy confined to the sphere of emotion and not enlightened by Reason?
Empathy certainly creates wonders and makes us more human. However, with the advent of modern technologies of communication and instant news, the most recent visual testimony of sufferings and violence triggers a flow of emotions towards hapless victims though a silent genocide may take place in a different spot of the world at the same time but away from the spotlight of cameras. The publicized tragedy which facilitates identification reduces the silent tragedy which displays no faces to an abstraction. Street children and orphans in Mauritius are unlikely to stir a flow of emotions and draw loads of foster parents who spontaneously open their hearts and purses for them. They remain an abstraction as long as they have no story of homes bombarded by enemies to tell the public. Similarly, the mediatized story of a single twelve-year old pregnant girl sent a minister rushing to her rescue and loads of people handing out banknotes, clothes and foodstuff. Fresh news, photos and names – and it worked.
Millions of children suffer from malnutrition and disease across the world without the media bothering to question the economic and political system that excludes them from society. Calls for protests against low salaries may fall on deaf ears as long as we live comfortably and do not bother to relate low wages to exploitation of a large number of workers by a few and government inaction on this matter, and see the link between low salary, promiscuity, social and family pressure, poor purchasing power, inability to buy land for one’s family, stress, violence and crime.
How else do we identify with victims? Currently, genuine international public concern for the oppressed people of Palestine is being turned into a politically correct attitude to adopt for anyone who is revolted by injustice and aggression, to the great comfort of their most vocal defenders in the Arab world and their followers everywhere. Diverting your attention to any other group which is equally oppressed and assaulted almost amounts to a crime.
Identification on the basis of religion or ethnicity alone displays narrow-mindedness and a sectarian vision of mankind. Killings committed by terrorists against their own coreligionists in Algeria, Egypt, Pakistan, Syria do not arouse heated outcry by intellectuals or send crowds with angry looks vociferating in the streets. Those crimes are made to appear less serious so long as a clear enemy from outside is not identified.
International sympathy for the people of Palestine may wear out in the long run for reasons that Palestinians are not responsible for. In light of the atrocities committed by the extremist group ISIS, the narrative regarding Zionist conspiracy in everything under the sun, its expansionist theory in the region and the venom spit on Israel continuously is likely to backfire.
Suspension of empathy occurs when you do not regard other people’s plight as worthy of attention and consider their lives as less valuable. It can happen, for example, within a small group of boys witnessing a boy being beaten up, without trying to intervene and stop the violence simply because all the while that the beating lasts the witnesses see the victim as someone devoid of any value, and thus suspend their feeling of empathy.
It may sound rather impossible to feel for seven billion people in the same way you feel for those you are close to. Yet, even if we cannot relate to faraway foreigners, our hope lies in our awareness that their life has the same value as those we know and identify with. For this to happen and for mankind to have a decent future, empathy should give way to reason, which is a key factor to promote respect for others.
* Published in print edition on 5 September 2014