Despite political shift, empathy must be valued

Dorrie Geang, staff writer

Old Haitian culture believed in the power of voodoo dolls. Everything the doll experiences—a prick with a needle—is mimicked by its respective, paired person—a sharp pain in the stomach. This mirroring is how Paul Bloom, psychology and cognitive science professor at Yale University and author of “Against Empathy,” would describe empathy. But I believe it has a broader, more inclusive meaning.
This replication of feelings and experiences is a hard thing to obtain. It seems illogical to limit empathy to Bloom’s definition when so many people would assure you they’ve felt empathy at some point or another. Although one may not be able to mimic the feelings of another, having the capacity to understand and/or identify with others’ feelings opens a lot of doors.
According to Mary Gordon, a Canadian entrepreneur who founded Roots of Empathy, practicing and engaging in empathy leads to sharing, inclusive individuals with decreased levels of aggression. She conducted a study in which children were taught “emotional literacy” by identifying the feelings of others. This activity proved to help people discuss their own feelings afterwards.
If people could dilute the presence of their own obstacles and toils of life enough to understand someone else, the world would be a better place. The Golden Rule might seem trite to some, but it’s what we tell our children for a reason. It’s accurate. It works. It’s the embodiment of empathy.
Some argue that limiting concern to groups that we feel empathy for will exclude other important issues, but this argument is narrow-minded. Having empathy only encourages activism. If people get involved in an issue, it tends to snowball. Maybe one congresswoman empathizes with a Middle Eastern woman deprived of education, because she herself experienced barriers in her own education. Now she has an interest. Now she has a motive to learn more about the problems that certain Middle Eastern countries face. What began as an empathetic feeling, turns into a driving force for political change.
Empathy broadens our opinions of friends and enemies. Relating to the experience of another allows people to understand different individuals, demographic groups and countries.
We can see the consequences of a society without empathy in William Golding’s novel “Lord of the Flies.” The book features a group of adolescent boys who find themselves stuck on a deserted island. What at first seems like an opportunity for adventure and autonomy quickly takes a turn for the worst when the boys’ egocentric tendencies cloud their judgment. They fail to empathize with the needs of others in the group. The ring leader of the clan, Ralph, ignores the struggles the group faces as a whole and ends up killing the intellectual outlet of the group, Piggy.
Perhaps if Ralph had been able to relate to the feelings Piggy experienced as an outsider, he would have better valued Piggy’s value and abilities.
We don’t live in a world of voodoo dolls. We can’t get in someone else’s head. We can’t pull a Freaky Friday and trade places with someone else.
But we can take a step forward by incorporating empathy into our daily lives as citizens and as friends.