Tag Archives: Climate change

Understanding is Inherent to Empathy: On Paul Boom and Empathy

I came across an article in The Atlantic recently that expressed the opinion that empathy might be overrated. You’ll note that the way the headline is written: “Empathy: Overrated?” should already tell us that the answer is no (via Betteridge’s law of headlines). While from the outset, I’m already noticing my bias against the idea of empathy being overrated, I did my best to read the piece with an open mind and I’m glad I did because there are a few passages that I think are important to highlight from the “con” side of empathy:

The problem, as Bloom sees it, is that “because of its focusing properties, [empathy] can be innumerate, parochial, bigoted.” People are often more empathetic toward individuals who resemble themselves, a fact that can exacerbate already-existing social inequalities. And empathy can cause people to choose to embrace smaller goods at the expense of greater ones. “It’s because of the zooming effect of empathy that the whole world cares more about a little girl stuck in a well than they do about the possible deaths of millions and millions due to climate change,” Bloom said.

Empathy can also make people do evil. “Atrocities are typically motivated by stories of suffering victims—stories of white women assaulted by blacks, stories of German children attacked by Jewish pedophiles,” Bloom said. It also can lure countries into violent conflicts based on relatively small provocations, and researchers have shown that people who are more empathetic are more likely to want to impose harsh punishments on people. “The more empathy you have, the more violent you are—the more ready and willing you are to cause pain,” Bloom said.

Bloom raises some really good points here, but I don’t know if it’s fair to lay the blame for climate change at the feet of empathy. There’s been an extremely strong misinformation movement that I’d “blame” before I’d blame empathy.

The point about empathy exacerbating social inequalities is also a bit curious to me. While we may be more inclined be to empathetic to people who look like us, that doesn’t preclude us from being empathetic to people who don’t look like us and to that end, wouldn’t being at least marginally more empathetic to people who don’t look like us be better than not being empathetic to them at all (if we’re to look at it from a cold, calculated, and objective standpoint)?

Lastly, and most importantly, I’m worried about this point that the more empathetic you are, the more likely you are to want to impose harsh punishments on people. I looked and looked, but couldn’t find the study that Bloom is referring to in this article in the New Yorker from a few years ago, so I won’t attempt to critique the study’s methodology, but I will say this: isn’t campaigning for less empathy taking us a step back? If we’re looking at the progression of humans, I think it’s probably fair to say that empathy is something that we’ve developed along the way. It’s growth. It’s positive (I mean that it’s an addition to our species, rather than when positive is meant to indicate a judgment). Wouldn’t it be better for us — as a species — to incorporate this new phenomenon of empathy as we continue to grow?

This idea reminds me of Ken Wilber and his work. In particular, the idea that we start with x, move to y, and then find a way to integrate our understanding of x and y to move to a third stage, let’s call it xy. It seems to me that we’ve learned about this thing called empathy (stage x), and now we’re learning about how it can sometimes have a negative effect on us. As a result, there’s this backlash or movement against empathy (stage y). So now, we’ve got to move to place where we can integrate the two (stage xy).

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Finally, I wanted to talk about one more thing that Bloom said:

At the end of the Aspen session, an audience member posed a scenario to the scientists: What if she was fired from her job, and her partner offered her a back rub and kind words but didn’t truly get why she was upset? Wouldn’t the comfort feel hollow, useless?

“What you’re really asking for is compassion plus understanding,” Bloom replied. “Suppose you feel humiliated. I don’t think it’s what you want or what you need for your partner to feel humiliated. You want your partner to understand your humiliation and respond with love and kindness. I think for your partner to feel humiliated would be the worst thing you want. Because now, you have to worry about your partner’s feelings.”

I like Paul Bloom and I’ve even written about him before, but I wonder if this is a misunderstanding of empathy. Or maybe more accurately, the way that the study defines empathy is different from the way that others may define empathy. The way that I remember empathy is that understanding is a component of empathy. I wrote a post about this a little while back and included a helpful short from the RSA:

Solving False Equivalence in Politics?

Last week, John Oliver had a great segment that poked fun at how most (all?) television outlets cover climate change. Take a look:

Upon watching it, I didn’t think that Oliver was going to “even out” the representation in a physical manner. Instead, I thought that he was going to solve the issue of the “talking heads” appearing equal. Let me explain. Watch this:

That’s Lewis Black from the 2006 film, Man of the Year. I have no doubt that this sentiment had been expressed before this film, but this was the first time that I had heard it in this way. Hosting someone on a TV program with ideas that are clearly incorrect and putting their “talking head” up next to someone who has legitimately studied and confirmed that the other person is incorrect is a form of false equivalence.

As Black explains, to the viewer, both of these sides appear “equal.” It appears that one person is expressing an opinion and that the other person has a different opinion. What’s being missed is that one person’s opinion is factually erroneous (just as we saw in the video with Bill Nye earlier).

When I was watching the Oliver video, it made me think that he was going to do something else. I thought he was going to show the two talking heads in boxes (as you usually see on “debates” on political talk shows), but instead of giving them both a 50/50 split on the screen, I thought he was going to ration it more appropriately given the overwhelming support for climate change. I thought he’d give Bill Nye’s box 97% of the screen and the other guy’s box 3% of the screen.

I realize that this probably wouldn’t work in an actual talk show, but since I knew it was supposed to be semi-satirical, it seemed like a plausible idea.

On that note, can you imagine if that’s how political talk shows actually did things? That is, instead of having that 50/50 split, when they were talking about something factual, the size of the box for the talking head espousing the nonfactual opinion would be smaller. Of course, there’s all kinds of problem that could be raised with regard to censorship, but it’s certainly creative.

Evidence that Liberals and Conservatives Can Have Civilized Conversations on Climate Change

This past summer, I talked about a segment on a cable news show in the US called, “All In With Chris Hayes.” I first started watching Chris Hayes when he started his weekly weekend show, “Up With Chris Hayes,” (that has since been renamed for the new host, Up With Steve Kornacki). I really liked his show because he often had guests on the show who were of differing ideologies. For some cable news networks, that’s big, but what was even bigger was that the people that were on the show — rarely — would scream at each other to make a point. That’s not to say the arguments never got heated — sometimes, they did — but there was still an element of civilized conversation. It’s what I imagine good political discourse should look like.

When Chris’s show moved to primetime, he tried to bring some of those same elements. There was a graphic a while back (this is the closest I could find) that showed Chris Hayes’ weekend show (or was it Melissa Harris-Perry’s? I don’t quite remember) was — by far — the most welcoming show for non-white male guests. Meaning, proportionally, the show had far more women and non-white people on the show than any of the other shows on cable news.

Anyway, back to the segment from this summer.

In the segment, Chris Hayes had on Tim Carney — a noted conservative. They were talking about what was a bit of a hot button issue at the time, but the two of them were able to actually participate in a civil discussion. No one tried to yell over the other and as a viewer, I left the segment feeling more informed about the issue from both perspectives.

A couple of days ago, Chris had Tim on the show again — this time to talk about climate change. When Chris first introduced the segment, I wondered if the discussion might descend into a yelling match, but I was pleased to find that wasn’t the case. In fact, someone of a liberal ideology (Chris Hayes) and someone of a conservative ideology (Tim Carney) were actually able to have a civil discussion about climate change. It was kind of amazing to see. In fact, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a cable news segment where that’s happened on the matter of climate change.

The end of the segment was my favourite part:

If we get to the point, Tim, if we get to the point where James Inhofe goes to the floor and says, ‘you know what the world is warming and carbon emissions are contributing to that warming, but the liberals are wrong with their solution’ and [Matt] Drudge goes on the front page of Drudge [Report] and says the world is warming, but the liberals are wrong about their solution,’ … nothing would make me happier.

In case you’re not very familiar with the climate change “debate,” there’s a sect who purport that climate change isn’t real. Usually, the ideology of people who makeup these kinds of groups are conservative, (but that doesn’t mean they speak for all conservatives or that they’re the only ones). As a result, this tends to make conservative politicians — as a way to cater to these voters — espouse the same kinds of opinions (Senator James Inhofe from Oklahoma being one of them).

That’s why Chris is saying that nothing would make him happier than to see noted conservative outlets (the Drudge Report) submit that climate change is real, but that the liberals are wrong about how to fix it. As far as I can tell, this is what many liberals have been wishing would be the case for some time. That is, ‘it’s okay if you don’t think we have the right solution, but can we at least agree that this thing is real and we have to do something about it?’

Environmental Serendipity: A Chance to Rebuild “Green”

With all due respect and condolences, the storm that hit the East Coast of the US is a tragedy, especially for those having to go through it first hand. The things I’m about to say in this post are in no way meant to detract from what is clearly a trying time for a number of citizens.

That being said, I can’t help but think of the ‘environmental serendipity.’ Let me explain: with DEstruction comes the opportunity for CONstruction. That is, after everything is all cleaned up, there will be an opportunity for these areas to rebuild their homes and communities. Given this, there is also the opportunity to rebuild from a more environmentally friendly perspective.

What I find noteworthy here is that if a storm like this hadn’t come through, would any of these areas considered knocking down their homes and rebuilding in a much “greener” way? Probably not. That’s why I see this storm as almost an environmental serendipity in that it gives these communities a chance to be much more mindful of the environment, with respect to its build.

There’s also the perspective that has been taken by some (like Newsweek), in that it brings climate change front and center to the national (USA) discourse. Given that it wasn’t mentioned at all during any of the US presidential debates, this is another “happy” consequence. Storms like these seem to be happening with much greater frequency. As this reality sets in, it will be (hopefully!) harder and harder to deny that our climate is changing… and we should be doing something about it!