The Death Problem and Empathy

A lot of my studies in sociology and anthropology have to do with ideas of class, race and gender, and how these things intersect into creating our micro-macro human experience. When we see suffering in the world, on the individual scale we get disheartened, saddened, and the experience is one that makes us feel terrible. There’s an amazing RSA talk (video at the bottom), called the Empathic Civilization. In this talk, Jeremy Rifkin argues that empathy is intimately related to our experience of mortality. If there is anything that unites all humans, of all intersections it is that we are all intimately aware on some level that we are going to die. Now, various religions combat this death idea differently, we all have ways of escaping or denying it, even us atheists. While it might be hard to relate to the social suffering of others in terms of intersections, the fact that living is hard, and dying means your end on this planet, is something we can all agree on. Without this knowledge of death, living unequally can seem trivial. “There is no Empathy in Heaven” (Rifkin).

There is an equally interesting essay on the reductionism of suffering by the media, written by Kleinmann and Kleinmann. There essay examines how we create soundbites of suffering to fill our minimal need to be informed. This comes with a lot of problems of representation, but I understand why people who look at the numbers can just argue that everything is getting better, whilst ignoring those individuals. For me, empathy is something I have very little control of. I sometimes feel like I feel too much. On occasion I will tell a story and feel tears building up in my eyes. When you’re so intimately aware of the situation, and can really experience it, it’s hard not to want to advocate for those individuals, even if things are getting “better” by some numeric standard. I’m not arguing that we have to go “save all the poor people” but I think we have to be intimately aware of how we cause pain even a world away. We also need to realize that numbers do not explain to us the full scenario, instead they are a useful tool, but do not tell the full story. In his book The Democracy Project David Graeber talks about how reducing concepts to phrases that do not tell the full story makes it easier for us to accept human travesties. He uses the concept of Human Rights to illustrate this. The term human rights seems like it tells us a lot, but when you consider that the words it can cover up are: torture, rape, and murder, we can see that it elicits less outrage. When we do business with China despite their human rights abuses, we are covering up the ways that Chinese workers are forced to work terrible hours, and are paid pennies. When we do business with China despite human rights abuses, we are acknowledging that we do not care that China actually uses the death penalty to kill non-violent drug users every year (despite this breaking UN treaties), and that despite all of the terrible things they do, we want their money more than their morality. This is not just some philosophical difference, it is grounded in real life situations.

Rifkin talks about how we have constantly expanded our consciousness of empathetic responsibility throughout the ages. We feel bonds to our families, then to our fellow religious people (or lack thereof), then we feel a bond to the people in our country. The next step is to feel a bond to the world. To be empathic and understand that things are hard for everyone, but especially harder for some. This is Radical Empathy, that empathy you feel for people outside your immediate social world. It takes a cognitive leap that is hard to do, until you realize our collective society has made leaps that felt equally grand before. It is what makes us want to go and help people, even if it might be misguided. The most important part of empathy is that it entails listening, an ability to hold back our immediate impressions and listen to what people really want.

When Sartre says because we are free we are responsible for everyone else, he is not making some grandstanding metaphysical claim. He is making a true statement about our responsibility to each other, and the fact that the choices we make no matter how small, can affect everyone. We are responsible because we can only live and excel through others. We are empathetic because to do the opposite requires us to lose a part of our humanity.




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