Tag Archives: Ken Wilber

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).

~

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:

Can an Holacratic Organization Be Successful?

Because of some of the work that I’ve done, one of the things that really interests me is organizational structure. I like peeking into the ways in which an organization functions because I think that we can learn a lot about how and why they succeed. As a result, when I heard that Zappos was going to be transferring over to an holacratic organization, I was very interested:

During the 4-hour meeting, Hsieh talked about how Zappos’ traditional organizational structure is being replaced with Holacracy, a radical “self-governing” operating system where there are no job titles and no managers. The term Holacracy is derived from the Greek word holon, which means a whole that’s part of a greater whole. Instead of a top-down hierarchy, there’s a flatter “holarchy” that distributes power more evenly. The company will be made up of different circles—there will be around 400 circles at Zappos once the rollout is complete in December 2014—and employees can have any number of roles within those circles. This way, there’s no hiding under titles; radical transparency is the goal.

Typically, when people think about organizational structure, three systems come to mind: divisional, functional, and matrix. [Note: as an aside, I wrote an answer for a question on Quora a couple of weeks back about how organizational structure can support an organization’s strategy.] A divisional structure is one in which there is a degree of redundancy to the organization (each division has their own HR, accounting, etc.). A functional structure is one in which there are “shared services,” such that there would be only one HR, accounting, etc. Lastly, a matrix structure is a hybrid of the two.

Now, Zappos is throwing all that out the window and is adopting a new kind of organizational structure: holacracy. To be perfectly honest, I have no idea if they’re going to be successful. I don’t think anyone can honestly say whether Zappos will be successful in this change and in fact, I don’t think we could definitively say that this organizational structure works (or doesn’t) based on how Zappos performs under this structure. However, it’ll certainly give us a window into how a bigger organization (1500+) functions in this kind of structure. From what I’ve read, this is the biggest organization to attempt to use a holacratic system.

One interesting tangent I find to this discussion about holacratic organizational structure is this idea of holons and who’s associated with this idea. I first heard about “holons” in conjunction with Ken Wilber. I’ve written about Wilber only a few times here, but he’s someone who’s certainly worth checking out, if you haven’t already. He presents some fascinating ideas on a number of topics. That’s not to say that he’s right or wrong, but he’ll certainly present a perspective that you likely hadn’t considered. And if you’ve been reading me long enough, you know that I’m a major proponent of perspective. With regard to Wilber, I’m, in particular, thinking about the work he’s done with Spiral Dynamics. That is, I wonder if, in order to ensure that an holacratic organizational structure is successful, would the “participants” of said organizational structure need to be from 2nd or 3rd tier of development or the “yellow” or “green” memes in spiral dynamics.

Love it or Hate it: Cloud Atlas is Worth Seeing

Cloud AtlasA little while ago, I mentioned that I’d seen a bunch of movies recently. One of those movies: Cloud Atlas. I rather liked the movie and think that you should most definitely consider seeing it. I tend to like the kinds of movies that Tom Hanks is in and I thoroughly enjoyed The Matrix trilogy. Yes, Tom Hanks was not in the The Matrix, but two of the directors (there were three) and producers  (there were five), also directed/produced The Matrix.

I really like movies that make you think and The Matrix certainly did that. In fact, from Wikipedia:

The Matrix makes numerous references to recent films and literature, and to historical myths and philosophy including BuddhismVedantaAdvaita Hinduism, Christianity, Messianism, Judaism, GnosticismExistentialismNihilism. The film’s premise resembles Plato’s Allegory of the caveRené Descartes‘s evil demonKant‘s reflections on the Phenomenon versus theDing an sichZhuangzi‘s “Zhuangzi dreamed he was a butterfly“, Marx’s social theory and thebrain in a vat thought experiment. Many references to Jean Baudrillard‘s Simulacra and Simulation appear in the film, although Baudrillard himself considered this a misrepresentation.

A movie that invokes that much has to make you think. In fact, if you get the chance, I’d read the interview between one of the directors of the Matrix (Larry Wachowski) and Ken Wilber, who has done a great deal to forwarding the integral movement.

Anyway, back to Cloud Atlas. The movie weaves together a bunch of different stories and some of the actors overlap between the stories (paying homage to the idea of reincarnation). Some of the stories are quite powerful and address issues that society has struggled with or is still struggling with. There are two quotes that I came across from one of the directors (Lana Wachowski) that I think are worth keeping in mind when reading reviews of this film (or The Matrix, for that matter). Here’s the first:

As soon as they encounter a piece of art they don’t fully understand the first time going through it, they think it’s the fault of the movie or the work of art. They think, [dramatic voice] “It’s a mess.”

“This doesn’t make any sense.” And they reject it, just out of an almost knee-jerk response to some ambiguity or some gulf between what they expect they should be able to understand, and what they understand.

And the second:

There’s really complex ideas in the [Matrix] trilogy. [Laughs.] We think in some ways, it’s the most experimental, complicated trilogy ever made. And it’s frustrating to see people try to will that to not be true. But we know it’s true. And in the same way, people will try to will Cloud Atlas to be rejected. They will call it messy, or complicated, or undecided whether it’s trying to say something New Agey-profound or not. And we’re wrestling with the same things that Dickens and Hugo and David Mitchell and Herman Melville were wrestling with. We’re wrestling with those same ideas, and we’re just trying to do it in a more exciting context than conventionally you are allowed to.

The World — as we know it — is in its Infancy

After watching this week’s Crash Course: World History on decolonization and nationalism, I have a newfound understanding (respect?) for the current state of the world. I used to think, ‘my goodness, humans have existed for so long, why are we still fighting?’ This presupposes that the makeup of the world had stayed relatively the same. And this, of course, is wrong.

According to modern scientific thought, humans have been around for 200,000 years. I always thought that with our being around for so long, we would have ‘figured it out’ by now and would be “nice” to each other. After reading Wilber and delving into Integral Theory, it adds a unique lens on why some groups of people are different from other groups of people, with regard to their development. Still, that wasn’t enough for me to “get it.” I still thought that development should have “happened” such that we treat each other better.

It wasn’t until I watched “Decolonization and Nationalism Triumphant” yesterday afternoon that I realized how young the world is in its current form. At most, we’ve existed in this way for about 70 years. Crazy, huh? When it’s put in those terms, that’s less than a lifetime! It starts to make more sense that certain conflicts haven’t yet settled and that there is still a desire for guns.