The Atrophy of Empathy

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.

Psychopaths and the otherwise antisocial individuals on the spectrum have little difficulty in applying cognitive empathy to situations that require them.  The adept psychopath is a particular master of cognitive empathy, even if such empathy is used in the name of manipulation and psychological violence.  We may lack affective empathy – those automatic feelings of pain or elation when confronted with the same – but we are quite adept at knowing the motivations of man.  As such, I posit that the political storm is nothing more than a masterclass to observe and learn from for us.  At least, that’s what it is for me.

People are taught skills pertaining to cognitive empathy at an early age, most notably with the concept of the golden rule: treat others as you would treat yourself.  Advanced theory includes the platinum rule.  If someone is in distress, alleviate their distress or console them.  If someone is ecstatic, congratulate them on their ecstasy.  So on and so forth.  Cognitive empathy is not a difficult skill to have – nearly all human beings are adept at it.  Or, so we’d like to believe.

The great atrophy of cognitive empathy combined with an overflowing source of surplus of affective empathy for one’s own makes for fertile ground for the political wars of the current climate.  We see our “own” suffer and seek out the “enemy,” seeking the kill in any fashion that we can.  We no longer wish to question why our automatic feelings for strangers should not be suspect, and we no longer take the time to realize that those we dehumanize are also human beings as well.  Bloodlust is the law of the land and all opposed are suddenly labeled as “centrists.”  Political pacifism is not the sign of centrism, but rather of maturity.  Life is not zero sum.  But, when you are consumed by animalistic and automatic thoughts of one’s own at the cost of everyone else, life cannot appear under any other light.

Ultimately, I only care to the extent that the political system that lets me live my life freely still exists when I wake from slumber.  The ever-escalating political war and the lives it ruins matters not to me.  However, I will always be amused by the fact that those with empathy are behind the wheel of the roaring heavy load that threatens all.  The blind eye turned to the very social skills we were taught as young folk will consume us all.  Meanwhile, I, and those like me, will be sitting here taking notes – in strange ages, even the sheep may teach the wolves how to kill.

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