Monday, 22 January 2018

Empathy for everyone?

By Marium Ibrahim

Is empathic connection only possible with those similar to us?
Photo credit:

One of the common threads throughout my fieldwork experiences while working at the Collective is related to the dynamics between groups of different social standings. A Muhajir woman in Karachi, while talking about the sanitation system in her area, said that usually everyone keeps the area clean, except for the Bengalis who have their children throw trash on the streets in front of other people’s houses. In a village in Sanghar, people from a mainstream Soomro community talked about how people from a neighboring socially marginalized Nohri community were uncooperative and difficult to deal with.

Assumptions such as these are not uncommon, and likely stem from the fact that more privileged groups often internalize negative stereotypes about marginalized groups. It’s not that people with privilege don’t see marginalization as unfair. Humans are able to recognize and emotionally respond to unfairness very early in their lives, but we are compelled by our brains to adopt the norms and beliefs of our communities.

The recent emergence of the importance of empathy in social justice  suggests that increased empathy for the oppressed, and being able to imagine situations from their perspective, can lead to social change. With the increasing numbers of people talking about, researching, and teaching empathy, there are arguably many more empathic people in the world. So if empathy is all we need, what’s stopping us?

We are confined by our context and our capacity. Empathy for all marginalized outgroups may come at social and psychological costs.

For starters, you can’t feel sorry for everyone. That’s human nature. Many Muslims in Pakistan show outrage at discrimination of Muslims anywhere else in the world, but don’t seem to be as bothered by similar treatment of other religious groups in their own country. Evolutionarily, it makes sense. We divide ourselves into in-groups and out-groups because we need to have strong bonds with our in-groups for our own protection and well-being, which may come at the expense of more threatening out-groups. Even young children have been shown to divide themselves into and define themselves by social groups that are based on arbitrary common characteristics. 

More support for why universal empathy may not be possible comes from research that shows that wealth and power both reduce people’s ability to empathize with, and feel compassion for others. In addition, many people who are privileged simply do not think of themselves as privileged. It’s always easy to find someone better off than you. But if you don’t recognize what you have, is it possible to care about people who don’t have it?

Some researchers argue that it is possible to fight our natural tendencies and teach our brains to empathize with more marginalized groups through meditation, spending time with outgroup members, or going through marginalizing experiences yourself. However, these methods can only take you so far. Feeling compassion for, and identifying with every individual is “psychologically impossible” and forces us to place unachievable demands on ourselves.

Many ad campaigns for NGOs seem to recognize our limited capacity for empathy, as they race to show photos of the most vulnerable populations, often in an exploitative way, to try and gain the public’s sympathies. And it works. But appealing to the empathy of those who are not marginalized often comes at the expense of, and places the onus on the oppressed.  The marginalized have to display their vulnerabilities while trying to prove some sort of similarity with the advantaged group to provoke understanding. In response to this, even when the more privileged groups do express moral outrage, it stems more from self-serving guilt, rather than true empathy or even moral obligation.

Is it possible to get out of our empathy-confinement, and is that something we should even try to achieve?

On an individual level, I do think we should strive towards being empathic, as we check our own privilege, try to understand new perspectives and be open to new ideas. But the marginalized shouldn’t have to display their pain for the privileged to care or to feel guilty. Empathy is not the only way to care. We naturally care for those close to us, and on a larger scale, we can build our moral concern on this natural concern for others rather than imagining being in someone else’s shoes. This way thinking is less focused on the self, and is also less psychologically taxing. If you care for the well-being of someone in your in-group, why shouldn’t this care be extended to another person as well? 

As a collective, it might be time to move past the idea of having empathy for everyone, and to think of ways in which people can be treated fairly even if we don’t understand their experiences.