Can Empathy Save the World?

Racial stereotyping and the killing of unarmed black men in the United States. The war on the poor. The Arab-Israeli conflict. The planet on the brink of catastrophic climate change. Species on the edge of extinction. While it many appear overly simplistic, it is my belief that at the root of all these seemingly diverse and intractable problems is a lack of empathy.

Empathy is the capacity to understand, be aware of, be sensitive to, and vicariously experience the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another; in other words, the ability to imagine walking in another’s shoes (or on another’s paws). If we were able to empathize with those we demonize, kill, consign to poverty, or condemn to extinction, then we’d likely act differently—very differently.

To see what I mean, let’s examine a handful of these problems: racial stereotyping, the war on the poor (another way of stating what many politicians in Washington are up to these days), and species on the edge of extinction.

Racial stereotyping on the part of many Americans has tragic consequences. The stereotype of the black man that is fixed in white America’s mind, that of someone likely violent and armed, who abuses or deals drugs, has directly contributed to the epidemic of recent deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police. From the choking death of Eric Garner in New York City last July; to the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson last August; to the case last fall of Tamir Rice, a black 12-year-old boy playing with a toy gun at a recreation center in Cleveland, Ohio, shot within two seconds of police arriving on the scene; to the case this April of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man shot eight times in the back as he ran from police in North Charleston, S.C., the number of cases in the country in the past year is just shocking—a true epidemic. And in several cases, the tragedies have been further compounded by grand juries concluding that there was not enough evidence of wrong doing for the officer involved to be held for trial. (Thanks to a video shot by a brave bystander of the incident in South Carolina, the police officer involved in the case was promptly arrested and dismissed from the force.) While there has been plenty of outrage at these events, far too many Americans have been of the opinion that each of these black individuals (I can’t say “men” because that boy in Ohio was only 12) had done something wrong that led to his death—thus blaming the victim. (While it is true that Michael Brown had robbed a convenience store right before he was shot to death by police, that fact does not in any way excuse his murder at the hands of police. The fact that matters, is this and only this: At the time of his murder, Michael Brown was unarmed.)

A lack of empathy allows these racial stereotypes to flourish, leading to such tragedies. And it’s not just police perpetrating them: The horrific massacre just days ago of nine African-American members of the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., by a white gunman points to the dangers of such insidious stereotypes. While the shooter targeted women as well as men, his reported comment, “You rape our women . . . ” hark back to an entrenched and longstanding stereotype of sexually voracious men of color preying on white women.

Instead of demonizing black males, let’s put ourselves in their shoes. Imagine that you are a young black man afraid of something bad happening every time you go out of the house. Perhaps you’ll be stopped by police while driving at night. Maybe you’ll be targeted for walking through a mostly white neighborhood wearing a hoodie. Imagine what that would be like. Then picture yourself as a black parent having to give your teenager a talk about how to behave if stopped by the police. Imagine your terror when your child hasn’t come home at the expected time. Contemplate and feel what the strain of living with this fear day in and day out would be like. That’s empathy, and it could go a long way to bridging the gap between white and black.

And what about those politicians in Washington waging war on the poor? For that’s what cutting food stamp programs while refusing to raise the minimum wage amounts to. Many of those working at minimum-wage jobs work a minimum of 40 hours a week and yet struggle to pay their bills or to put food on the table for their family. That just isn’t right. But the politicians don’t seem to get it. Lawmakers making a six-figure salary (base pay for senators and congressmen is $174,000 a year) just don’t care about the working poor. And the reason those in Congress don’t care (besides the fact that the working poor don’t have money to donate to their campaigns) is that they lack empathy. They refuse to imagine what it would be like to be in this situation, what it would be like to work two jobs just to make ends meet, getting up way before sunrise in order to have enough time to commute to work by public transportation, as many of the working poor have to do. If politicians even briefly contemplated the struggles that someone working a minimum-wage job has to face day after day, perhaps they would change their anti-poor positions. (When you come right down for it, empathy should be a requirement to run for office. Someone should come up with a test!)

What about the other creatures inhabiting the earth? It’s imperative that we feel empathy towards them as well. Take the looming extinction of countless species due to human impacts. If one were to imagine oneself to be a polar bear futilely swimming for miles in search of sea ice in order to hunt seals, and finally drowning; or a bird returning from its winter home in order to nest only to find that the supply of insects it depends upon to feed itself and its young is not there, then our hearts would be moved and we would do more to fight for their right to live. Not to mention our own right to survive, which is, to speak quite frankly, more and more in doubt, for of course, climate change affects humans as well, and it most affects those least able to cope—those in poor countries, living in the lowlands of Bangladesh, for example, or on islands such as the tiny island of Tuvalu, halfway between Hawaii and Australia, whose people are already experiencing flooding that is contaminating their drinking water, and erosion eating away their land. If we pictured ourselves clinging to a tree while water rose around us during one of the many cyclones that kill thousands in Bangladesh, or living on an island witnessing our home being claimed by the sea, then maybe we’d do something to reduce our emissions and halt the relentless movement upward of the global thermometer.

So can empathy by itself save the world? Perhaps not, but it would go a long way towards making the world a far better place for all of Earth’s inhabitants to live. It’s definitely worth a try, so let’s get started!

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