From Axing Aarey to Kashmir Lockdown: Are We in the Midst of an Empathy Crisis?

Social Commentary

From Axing Aarey to Kashmir Lockdown: Are We in the Midst of an Empathy Crisis?

Illustration: Arati Gujar

 

Empathy: The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.
– Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Let’s look at a whole bunch of problems the world is facing today, and look at the root cause behind them.

The climate crisis? Because people throw trash into the sea without worrying about its impact on others, or traditional energy companies filling up their coffers, melting glaciers bedamned. The rise of violent nationalism? Because people don’t like people not like them. Unemployment and the gig economy crisis? Because economics is moving in a way that prioritises share price over employee health and sustainability. Long hours and Gen Z burnout? Because bosses are happy dumping more work on employees at no extra pay.

Why look outwards? Let’s have a look at India. The gall with which the Aarey Forest is being chopped down shows how we never considered the environment or those who would be displaced. Lynchings and sectarian violence are borne out of intolerance. Moral policing happens because some people have the gall to have their own thoughts and feelings that really don’t interfere with anybody else’s life. Kashmir shows how much some people value their own optics over human rights.

We could go on and on, but the underlying takeaway for all this and more is that many of the world’s problems happen because we, collectively as a species, have lost the ability to see things from someone else’s perspective. Despite so much media coverage, supporters of either major US party understand each other less. CEOs are increasingly disconnected from ground reality.

Moral policing happens because some people have the gall to have their own thoughts and feelings that really don’t interfere with anybody else’s life.

The biggest tragedy here is, many of the end goals of the “oppressors” would be served much better if they were empathetic in the first place to begin with. Studies have shown time and again that refugees tend to raise the economy of the destination country, and often pay more in taxes and are more law-abiding. Companies that have a reputation for firing people are less likely to get good new hires. Economics 101 tells that equitable wealth distribution leads to companies doing better as there are more people to buy goods (“How are you going to get them to buy your cars?”, as Ford’s union leader shot back at the company’s founder, when asked how the new robots would pay union dues).

Heck, even nationalism – whether you agree with the concept or not – would benefit from empathy. More people would actually be proud to be associated with a tolerant society. How many movie-goers stand up for the anthem for reasons other than self-preservation? 

Short-term thinking and tribalism is pushing us to extremes, and in fact, many of the problems I outlined in the beginning are inter-connected. Anti-immigrant sentiments are more likely among the unemployed who need someone to place blame on, and someone to peg their hopes on (which, in turn, leads to the rise of authoritarian strongmen who have little other than bluster by way of qualification). 

Selective amnesia doesn’t help: The United States could do well to remember it was their own cocaine addiction that led to the current crisis sending hordes of Central Americans to seek refuge at their borders. In the business world, Zomato recently learnt the hard way of the perils of mistreating partners on whom their whole business was based. 

You might think it’s touchy-feely and soft to think of fuzzy terms like empathy. After all, in the 21st century, we are bombarded by leaders telling us to be ruthless. In fact, that is the very problem: The world is not a zero-sum game, and the best countries to stay and work in, year after year, are those which emphasise collective progress rather than that of a select elite who can afford to buy their way to success. Do you have any middle-class friend who would rather move to Saudi Arabia than Sweden?

Being empathetic is honestly the most selfish thing you can do.

Being empathetic is honestly the most selfish thing you can do. Being polite to an Uber driver increases your chance of a high rider rating, which means more likelihood to be matched by a good driver later. A country that welcomes immigrants has a grateful population willing to do anything to contribute and help it grow. Car companies focusing on renewability are getting more traction from a population spooked by climate change. Seeing things from someone else’s point of view isn’t just a nice thing to do, it’s genuinely the best way to help you get what you want at the end. Don’t marketing courses, after all, tell you that “seeing things from the customer’s perspective” is the best way to grow your business?

The most powerful bit in the Harry Potter books to me was when Harry took Professor Snape’s memory and went through the Pensieve to see life from his perspective. That was the tipping point when the most-hated character in the books became one of its most admired. Maybe there’s a lesson there for all of us.

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