Our politics and our society are afflicted by an absence of something: empathy.
Empathy is misunderstood as an emotion.
It is not a fleeting, transient concern for somebody else’s welfare. It is not about feeling misery or melancholy for somebody’s misfortune. It is not even about identifying with somebody else’s beliefs or their cause. This is too passive to constitute empathy.
Empathy is a far more lively and active emotion than it is given credit for.
It requires entering a non-judgemental frame of mind and a decentering from your own egoism to imagine your peer’s experience and perspective. It requires a self-abnegation of ego and self-awareness. To comprehend your own emotions helps you to understand the experiences of others.
The analogy we can use to understand about what empathy is, is that you should imagine yourself glancing in the mirror and not seeing yourself, but seeing a friend or family member or fellow citizen who is struggling and imagining what they are thinking and feeling and how this is influencing their behaviour. Empathy, although not named as such in the past, has long existed in the passage of time. Adam Smith published ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’ in 1759 and he wrote about the importance of fellow feeling and the challenge of trying to feel what others are experiencing.
Empathetic accuracy will often be imperfect, but we must all summon the will to try.
Humans first develop empathy when they are two years old. It can be taught through role play, training in perspective taking and exercises in group problem solving. Close friendships and greater knowledge of others’ personalities and experiences can foster empathy.
Something happens in our brains when we are empathetic. When empathy increases, the ‘trust hormone’ oxytocin increases and is released by the brain and as a result we are more likely to trust others. Also, if we perceive trustworthy behaviour directed towards us, our oxytocin levels increase. So empathy matters as it fosters trust and bonding between humans. It has also been proven that empathetic individuals are less likely to exhibit social prejudice and are more likely to engage in prosocial behaviour.
Empathetic individuals are more likely to share, donate, co-operate and volunteer.
Increasing the capacity for empathy in society can lead to peace and justice. Empathy is a foundation for peace, as understanding others’ emotions and experiences can make negotiation and compromise more palatable and conflict less likely, as we will understand why our opponents approach a problem from another perspective. Empathy is a foundation for justice, as we need to be able to understand others’ rights and when they have been violated, so we can protect them from the harsh, unrelenting winds of injustice.
Forging an empathetic society will be a challenge given the intense competition in our market economy and the entrenched fear and chronic stress engulfing the lives of many. Stress wears away at the nervous system.
Long-term stress can alter the brain at a biochemical level.
Repeated stress, the kind that people often face when they are trapped in poverty, reshapes the brain, as the stress hormone cortisol etches a chemical traumatic trace on the mind. Without the ability to turn off this fear response, humans are less able to distinguish threats from non-threats. Empathy becomes a great challenge when someone perceives threats everywhere and when insecurity and uncertainty mean that many in society can only afford to focus on survival.
This is a great challenge that our society faces. Chronic stress and fear about the cost of living, insecure work, insufficient wages, uncertainty about security in retirement, anxiety about employment opportunities and fear about whether sickness will be treated plagues this land.
And those who are fortunate enough to not be trapped in this chronic stress spiral will often blame individuals for their own predicaments and overlook the role of the external environment.
This absence of empathy is epitomised by attitudes towards the unemployed.
They are labelled as lazy, feckless, scroungers, exploiters of the welfare state and whilst it is true that a small proportion will fraudulently claim benefit (in 2019-20 the rate of benefit fraud across all welfare expenditure was 1.4%), people often overlook the role that low self-esteem, mental health challenges, physical illness, skills deficits and geographical and occupational immobilities of labour play in causing unemployment.
It is not only an empathetic society that must be forged, but also an empathetic leadership model.
The current occupant of N.10 was admitted to an ICU unit at St Thomas’ Hospital on the 5th April 2020. Surely it would be expected that this experience would induce some empathy from the Prime Minister for what NHS staff and COVID patients were having to deal with. But instead he continues to enforce the chronic underfunding of the institution that helped save his life and he enabled industrial scale partying in N.10 so that it became the greatest law breaking property in the UK during the pandemic. This behaviour suggests a cold-bloodedness and disregard for others’ experiences that is chilling.
In order to build an empathetic society, the norms and practices at the top of society must be empathetic ones. The behaviour of the leaders of educational institutions, political institutions and businesses must remember that for ‘everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required.’