These are fascinating times. Competing, and equally extreme, groups are vying for our heartstrings and lives are literally on the line in their self-inflicted wars. I propose that such animosity and blind hatred is born from a surplus of affective empathy and a dearth of cognitive empathy. As a empathetically blind observer, I have no dog in the fight between the extremists on the left and those on the right, except inasmuch it may ultimately affect me if either side should prevail. However, let’s explore in particular the atrophy of (cognitive) empathy that is fostering this current environment of dehumanization and violence.
These are strange times. My intellectual grasp of the interconnectedness of the world is at peak form even if I do not hold an emotional state toward others living on this earth. Cognitively, I realize that every action I take affects someone else in some fashion and that every action another takes may affect me. In this sense, the grand dance that is life is slowly being revealed to me. What will eventually come my way from such a focus on the intertwined nature of life is yet to be seen. I do not believe in karma, but I do believe that if one seeks to be part of the world, they must respect the world. By respect, I mean that the individual must realize that others have their own unique positions in life and that they exist separate from the observer’s point of view. There are times in which my selfishness and callousness shines through, but by and large, I am morphing into a new being. This is no accident. Months and years of meditating upon my place in the world have brought me to this point and a lesser mind certainly would not reach the same conclusions that I have. These are strange times indeed.
I rarely have any actual investment in the topics I discuss. Good things happen to bad people at times, and at other times bad things happen to good people. If I’m not the person being affected, or those in my life are not being affected, then I simply cannot care. What ultimately interests me are those processes under which the majorities of the world operate. These can be political majorities, socioeconomic majorities, or even majorities with respect to mental illness. I want to know how they function and what makes them tick. Often these groups can only remain cohesive through an act of mass dissonance. That is, the individual succumbs to the majority by separating their emotional states from their intellectual states. Further, the emotional state is given more credit than the intellectual state to alleviate the existential crisis that would arise from a state free of dissonance. Humanity needs to be less afraid of dissonance and must own it in order to make educated and reasoned choices to the problems man is confronted with. Embrace your pain.
By now, most of us are aware of the tragedy that went down at a club in Orlando this past weekend. I will not rehash the details and I will leave the responsibility of knowing the background to the reader. I am not particularly interested with the tragedy itself – bad things happen to people all the time and one would go insane to give any tragedy more than a modicum of emotion or thought – but I am extremely interested with the response that people have. It interests me to see that people are getting more emotional and invested for people they’ve never known than those that are close to proximity in life. It also interests me to see the emotional responses that drive politics and how two different groups of people can have the same emotions but come up with wildly different knee-jerk solutions. As I’ve said all along, we need to leave our emotions at home when it comes to determining how we are going to live our lives and how we are going to enact policies that effect the lives of others. People are irrational during times of tragedy, but the damage they can cause may be irrevocable.
By now many of you have heard about the ruckus involving a Standford student convicted of raping an unconscious woman. The judge issued a fairly lenient sentence (as lenient as any sentence can be when one is required to register as a sex offender) and many are calling for both his head and the rapist’s head. The reasoning for the “light” sentence is that the convicted had no prior criminal record and was deemed to be with good chances of rehabilitation in prison. This logic combined with the outcry of many circles is what interests me. If prison is intended to be a tool of rehabilitation, then the system must be celebrated when it is successful. This would dictate that sentences be made proportional to the odds of successful conversion from criminal behavior to prosocial behavior. However, we are left in a world of bloodlust as the very people that decry the prison system are outraged that its power was not used in complete force with respect to the convicted. After all, it’s okay to empathize with the disadvantaged that wind up in the system, but for those in which it is agreeable to pile on crucifixion, it must be done so with great gusto.