On the Importance of Empathy

Caitlin McLaren - 4A Chemical
Posted on: September 25, 2016

It feels as if every day there is more bad news. Between the war in Syria, the terror attacks and shootings that happen with saddening regularity, the growing controversies over police brutality and various responses to the same, and the long-unresolved refugee situation, any good news seems to get lost in a world that seems to be unraveling. All kinds of people say they have a solution; some of these proposals are selfish attempts to avoid the problems without helping those affected, while others are naively idealistic and ignore the realities of how and why these situations happen.

What does cause conflict? Of course, there are a myriad of causes from ideologies to frustration about injustices to simple differences growing out of control. Conflict is inevitable in any society, and so the success or failure of a society lies in its ability to resolve conflict. This is why we have laws and courts, including the court of public opinion; as a society, we need to be able to express, debate, and come to a conclusion on what values we live by and what behaviours we endorse or condemn.

It is clear that the structures in place are not working as they should. Whether it is government against citizen, law enforcement against citizen, citizen against citizen, citizen against outsider—all of these conflicts are happening around us. Whatever the root causes are, the solution is not to further the conflicts. Warmongering will not help. Building walls will not help. Stirring up fear and hatred against a supposed instigator is the last thing that will help. These are things that prevent an issue coming to any resolution.

Even if there is truly one person or group of people responsible for a problem, the right thing is not to hate, to fear, to use indiscriminate violence. Supposing that you do crush these evildoers so fully that whatever harm they had done is completely eradicated. What have you achieved? True, one crisis has passed, but there will be another, and another. By destroying that group, you have helped create a world where the answer to a difficulty is violence and silencing the opposition. The next group of so-called culprits may be too numerous to destroy, and fighting instead of peacemaking may lead to your defeat or a Pyrrhic victory. They might be scapegoats, and you will be responsible for the persecution of innocents. And—unthinkable though it may seem—they might be in the right.

What, then, are we to do? Can we avoid problems that we think do not concern us? Can we ignore the suffering of the world around us, hoping that it is not contagious? We cannot; we do live in the world. Every person depends upon others. Every country depends upon others. Refusing to engage with the world, out of either selfishness or fear, is both impossible and wrong. If we do not strive to improve the world, we are contributing to its deterioration because all things will deteriorate if nothing is done. If we take all the good things that we can out of life without then giving good things back to others it means that, willingly or not, we are on the wrong side.  If you are unaffected by trouble, you should spread your peace. After all, even without any altruism, it is only logical; no matter how powerful or far away you are, an unchecked problem will, eventually, affect you too.

What can we do, then, to make the world a better place? The path is not clear, but the beginning is: empathy. We can never reconcile with an enemy or make a new friend without learning how they see the world and learning how to see it the same way.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn writes in The Gulag Archipelago: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Even the most abhorrent people—terrorists, dictators, fear-mongering demagogues, the guy who cut you off in the parking lot—they are all people who function in basically the same way that you do. Their motivations seem sound to them and their actions reasonable; if you were in their place, you might well think the same way. If you respond in kind, you will only convince them further that you deserve what they did, and that you are the one in the wrong. You will convince bystanders that you are the one in the wrong. Sometimes you are the one in the wrong.

This is true on whatever scale you choose. If you kill an innocent while bombing a terrorist hideout, their families will learn to hate you and be more open to extremist propaganda. If you get into a fight with an aggressive drunk, their friends are likely to attack you and the police won’t be too impressed either. Even a simple argument between friends or partners does not “win” anything; it drives people further apart.

If you want to change someone’s mind, you have to convince them using arguments that they would find valid. These are not necessarily the same ones you find valid. This is why you should listen to a person you dislike, no matter how disagreeable that is. Listen to them. Understand why they hate you, and what you need to do to show that you are not as they imagine. If that would require you to change, so be it.

Before you decide that you are in the right, consider the other point of view. What is your reasoning? Is it selfish reasoning? Does it put your needs before those of the other side? Does it dismiss the problems of the other side? If someone is angry at you, there is probably a reason behind it. The other party may well be wrong but, even so, their points deserve consideration.

Never dismiss a person’s complaints without listening to them. Most people are not monsters, and everyone thinks that they are good. Warring factions usually have legitimate grievances, or at least a vision that they think will improve the world. Activists are supporting a cause that they think is worthy, not merely trying to upset people. Those who support unpopular politicians genuinely think it will improve their and their families’ lives. Few of these people actually deserve hate and, if they do, what good would hating them be? It will not decrease their hatred.

So listen to them. Listen to your racist uncle at dinner. Listen to the crazy street preacher. Listen to the arrogant atheist. Listen to that one friend you have who won’t shut up about their pet cause. Listen to that guy who hates you for no reason. Listen to Donald Trump. Listen to al-Qaeda. You might learn how their life has brought them to where they are now and how you can help them or keep others from coming to that point. You might learn how to argue against their ideas in a way they will actually hear. You might learn that they are right. You will learn something.

And what should you do with this knowledge? Well, for one thing, you will be a better person for it. Don’t underestimate the effect you have on the world around you. You will be bringing that much more positivity into the world. You never know when or where that will be needed. For another thing, the more knowledge you have the more you will be able to teach others. Ignorance is one of the largest contributors to conflicts and knowledge is the antidote. The more knowledge two sides of any disagreement have the more common ground they will recognize and the clearer the solution will be.

To resolve any conflict, be it personal or geopolitical, the most important thing is to find common ground. Whether it’s two countries arguing over territory or a group project that isn’t working out, dismissing the other side as being simply perverse or malicious means that the issues will never be resolved except by force, which is rarely a final resolution and damages all sides. Empathizing with people won’t automatically resolve conflicts but it is a necessary first step. Refusing to empathize will only perpetuate misery. Never say “Those people can’t be reasoned with.” Empathize with them instead. What do they want? Why do they want it? Is it truly unreasonable from their point of view? What can you give them?

Why should you do this, when the other side is likely to abuse your goodwill? Because it is precisely that kind of thinking that leads to endless cycles of conflict without resolution. If neither side is willing to be the first to soften in any way, what softening can there ever be? Yes, there will be people who take advantage of a generous adversary, but many will be willing to listen in return.

Sometimes being right is not enough. Being kind can be more important when it comes to winning people over. A logical argument presented in an arrogant or aggressive way will not resolve anything. If the other side of any quarrel feels that you truly understand their needs and are listening to them, half of the battle is over. Put aside your biases and interests for that time, and try to feel how the other party feels. If everyone would do this—if everyone could see each other not as an enemy or an incomprehensible alien but as another human being simply trying to live their life as they think best, it would be the beginning of the end of hatred, terror, bigotry, and hostility. That beginning is the responsibility of every one of us.