Empathy, writes Martin Rowson, is one of the things that make us human, make us civilized, allows us to interact without tearing one another’s throats out. Without it, we’d have no civilization; we’d be like the beasts of the fields. And we’d have no dogs or gods, either. Empathy is what makes us own pets and be religious.
That’s one of the thought-provoking ideas Rowson tosses around in his book, The Dog Allusion (Vintage Books, London, 2008). The title, as I’m sure you are aware, is a pun on Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion.
Rowson has a lot to say about religion – and not much of it flattering, but generally he’s not as acerbic as Dawkins or Hitchens. Religion, however central to his arguments, is not the book’s sole focus. It isn’t a comprehensive screed against religion or even a paen to atheism; rather it’s a series of essays on various topics into which religion often is cast. The book hasn’t received a lot of attention or garnered many reviews from what I can find, but that may be because most of his readers are likely already on his side of the philosophical fence. It may also be that he meanders. A lot. Still, he offers up a good set of arguments worth pondering, even for the converted.
I am not here to wade into his comments on religion quite yet, however, but rather to comment on his notions about empathy – about which I agree, at least somewhat. I have often felt that the single most important attribute in a politician is empathy. Without it, the political road leads to all sorts of tyrannies and egocentric self-entitlement. Without empathy, politicians raise taxes, utility rates, user fees without consideration of their actual impact. Just like they do here in Collingwood.
Having dealt with numerous politicians in my day (and been among their ranks, municipally, for more than a decade), I sometimes think having intelligence would be a better place to start listing desirable attributes. After all, the first thing every politician should have is the wit to understand the consequences of their actions. Yet so many don’t have it. SO many act as if they were the centre of the universe and their actions have no impact on others. But let’s not talk about The Block right now. That’s just depressing. Let’s talk in general terms, first.
Steven Taylor, in Psychology Today, wrote this somewhat flowery description of empathy:
Empathy is the ability to ‘feel with’ another person, to identity with them and sense what they’re experiencing. It’s sometimes seen as the ability to ‘read’ other people’s emotions, or the ability to imagine what they’re feeling, by ‘putting yourself in their shoes.’ In other words, empathy is seen as a cognitive ability, along the same lines as the ability to imagine future scenarios or to solve problems based on previous experience. But in my view, empathy is more than this. It’s the ability to make a psychic and emotional connection with another person, to actually enter into their mind-space. When we experience real empathy or compassion, in a sense our identity actually merges with another person’s. Your ‘self-boundary’ melts away; the separateness between you and the other person fades.
Okay, the minute anyone goes on about “psychic” anything my skeptic’s hat gets pulled down over my eyes and ears… no matter how hard you try, no matter how hard you clutch your magic crystals, you CANNOT enter anyone’s mind-space. You’re not a Vulcan from Star Trek, able to mind-meld. At best you can imagine their mind space. But that imagination matters because in animals it’s a rare, perhaps even uniquely human, talent.
As Rowson himself wrote (an excerpt from the book) in a post for the New Humanist in 2008,
As an innate, hard-wired evolutionary survival tool, empathy allows human beings to project their own individual consciousness in all directions, which we do constantly and incontinently because we can’t do anything else. It allows us to love other human beings, and to hate them, but more importantly to imagine what it’s like for them to be loved or hated, and what it’s like for them to love or hate us. From our capacity to imagine what it’s like to be someone else also spring pity, compassion, generosity, envy, jealousy, covetousness, revenge, hope and remorse. I’d suggest it’s also what moulds the intensity of almost all of our other human emotions.
It also made it possible for us to view the world around us, project ourselves into it and beyond the horizon and then report back so we can reflect on the position and condition we find ourselves in and act accordingly. This isn’t either a spiritual or a physical extension of ourselves beyond ourselves, but the result of our capacity for imagination; it’s not anything “paranormal” like thought-transference or telepathy, although that’s what it actually is, but it is innate and of ourselves. Just like the Bishop of Southwark, it’s what we do, because we’re human.
Empathy IS imagination, inextricably linked to it. It’s the ability to imagine yourself in another’s situation, another’s conditions, another’s space and life. It’s the ability to extend your consciousness outside the little box of your head and put it into what you imagine is another’s self-box. Projecting your consciousness doesn’t mean it floats around in a bubble, detached from your body in some New Age transit system.
Empathy is what keeps our instinct for self-preservation from being mere selfishness. It’s not some mystical, supernatural or psychic ability. It’s a trait you develop – through reading, through socializing with others, through watching film and TV, through culture, interaction and education. There’s only so much genetic empathy that arises as instinct inside us. A fully developed sense of it is something you have to work at, you have to practice and learn to use.
Empathy, like language, like walking upright, is a genetic caterpillar that needs to be nurtured, nourished and trained to turn into a mature butterfly within each of us. Seeing through another’s eyes – or at least imagining you’re seeing through their eyes – requires both good upbringing and consistent practice to make it a functional skill in us, to make it a meaningful attribute in our personalities.
Literature helps us with that: it’s a codified, form of empathy drawn from our instinctual need for storytelling (a trait also hardwired in our brains). Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, Chapter 1 (Economy):
What distant and different beings in the various mansions of the universe are contemplating the same one at the same moment! Nature and human life are as various as our several constitutions. Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant? We should live in all the ages of the world in an hour; ay, in all the worlds of the ages. History, Poetry, Mythology! — I know of no reading of another’s experience so startling and informing as this would be.
Thoreau knew that reading gives us insight into the lives of others, thus strengthening our capacity for empathy.*
What happens when you have no empathy and you’re in a position of power or authority? You get an autocracy – or kleptocracy – in which the goals of self-entitlement, self-enrichment overshadow any concern for the greater good. Self uber alles. We can see that right now in the Trump administration, in the Republicans in the US Senate and Congress. We saw it in our own Prime Minister, Steven Harper, and we see it in his protegés running for party leadership (Kellie Leitch and Kevin O’Leary come to mind). We see it in The Block on Collingwood Council. What do they all have in common? Little to no concern for anyone but themselves, for no welfare but their own. A desiccated empathy.
But lack of empathy isn’t unique to conservatives: the Liberal Wynne government in Ontario exhibits the same disregard for the public welfare and wellbeing as the Harperite one did. However, in general, parties on the right are more self-involved, self-interested, self-enriching and self-directed than any of those on the left. They lack empathy more than their leftist rivals (not that the Democrats are particularly left in anything but the alt-right’s spewing propaganda. They’re really right-centrist, at least in comparison with actual leftist parties). Perhaps the real difference between the right and left sides of the political spectrum, once ideology is peeled away, is simply in the degree in which they care about others. How much empathy they have.
Without empathy, a person is a sociopath, described in Interview Magazine as “…those creatures who, through their grand schemes of contrivance, manipulation, and deceit, seek to undermine the very fabric of it all because, well, they can.” Does that sound like anyone you know? Someone on our local council, perhaps? Or several someones? As WebMD notes:
A sociopath typically has a conscience, but it’s weak. He may know that taking your money is wrong, and he might feel some guilt or remorse, but that won’t stop his behavior.
Psychology Today adds the following attributes (among others) to the definition of sociopath:
- Poor judgment and failure to learn by experience;
- Pathologic egocentricity;
- Untruthfulness and insincerity;
- Lack of remorse and shame;
- Specific loss of insight;
- Unresponsiveness in general interpersonal relations.
Just add a pathological need to be secretive and connive behind closed doors, and the description would perfectly fit some local politicians we know. And probably some national ones, too.
Back to Rowson, who makes the point that empathy is also a reflection of our own inner longing to see ourselves in others and how it expresses itself in pets (there: I finally got around to it…):
…we project our individual consciousnesses into everything around us, which then, like a million million mirrors, bounces back the projection and reflects us back to ourselves. But they don’t just reflect: in our perception of them, we imagine they absorb something of us too. That’s why, probably uniquely of all the animal species that have ever lived, we keep pets. It’s because we imbue them with our own qualities, which then reflect back on us and to our own advantage, and thus make us feel better.
Well, yes, we anthropomorphize our pets, a trait that goes from cute to deranged. But that’s not all. Mammals share with us certain evolutionary developments that we cultivate (i.e. breed like GMOs) in pets: loyalty, obedience, affection. These aren’t just reflections: they are genetic attributes the animals also share. We paint them with our own perception and wishful thinking to make them stand out, but they are inherent in our pets, too. Dogs can feel empathy, too. So can cats, albeit in a somewhat different degree (putting both of them on a higher evolutionary plane, it seems, than many politicians). So there’s a mutual aspect to the pet thing.
But where does religion come in? Empathy has a darker side, too. As Rowson concludes:
We imbue all of them with levels of importance to us that they hardly merit objectively, and although this is, in many ways, motivated by the same things that draw a dog to its bone, its intensity and scope are, albeit quantitatively, uniquely human.
For precisely the same reason, and in exactly the same way, the same goes for God too.
In other words, we project the attributes we think are important onto a higher level: we elevate our own image into deities. We imbue them with the qualities we wish we had, with greater strength and ability. That’s what makes them gods. They have the magic we don’t. We’re all just Job shuffling along at the mercy of the capricious Hairy Thunderer.
What Rowson doesn’t state is that we do exactly the same for political leaders: we project our wishes and hopes (and sometimes fears) onto them. This can make governments seem more like a tussle of Titans from the classical era rather than a democratic activity (and certainly the media tend to report it thus). Empathy let us imbue them with godlike attributes – but when our affection sours, we make them devilish; on the opposite side of the moral and ethics fence from where our empathy first located them.
Rowson doesn’t really take his argument about empathy into the political realm as much as he does the religious. Which, given so many recent political events on the world stage that call for a discussion on empathy and its lack – Trump and Brexit – and even locally: The Block witch hunts – is unfortunate. It leaves me wanting to read more in that vein, but I am forced to look elsewhere.
So many politicians – our own Block included – come to power on the voters’ wave of high hopes, only to dash themselves on the rocks of their own selfishness and stupidity. But it was the voters who had the empathy, not the politicians, as we learned to our dismay. Far too many politicians – like our own Blockheads – just don’t give a shit about the voters.
* Henry David Thoreau also wrote, in Walden, Chapter 3 a warning about people who don’t read – which conflates with those who have low levels of empathy:
We are underbred and low-lived and illiterate; and in this respect I confess I do not make any very broad distinction between the illiterateness of my townsman who cannot read at all and the illiterateness of him who has learned to read only what is for children and feeble intellects.
Chekov was a great storyteller, with a talent for writing about empathy. Check out this Foreign Policy Review article.