Last night, I attended a wonderful program at UCLA titled Why History Matters: History in the Classroom: Controversy Across Cultures. The program featured Sami Adwan, Professor, Hebron University, Ross Dun, Professor Emeritus, San Diego State University, Mary Robinson Hendra, Associate Program Director, Facing History and Ourselves, and Halleli Pinson, Senior Lecturer, Ben Gurion University of the Negev.

Throughout the program, I was posting what I viewed as important information to my personal Facebook account.

This morning, my spouse commented to me that the most powerful such post was Facing History and Ourselves’ quote, “People make choices. Choices make history.”

Every single thing we say and do are actions which we have chosen to make. What we don’t say and do are the result of our inactions, which are also choices. Whether those choices are conscious or unconscious, they are still choices.

The impact of those choices create history. In fact, the English Oxford Living Dictionary defines History as follows:

The study of past events, particularly in human affairs.... The whole series of past events connected with a particular person or thing.”

The panel members all agreed that for peace to occur, a thorough understanding of different historical perspectives and the reasons behind those perspectives is essential.

While this was said in the context of “controversy across cultures”, the same is true of any and all interpersonal relationships. Consider the following quote from Regina Pally’s book The Reflective Parent: How to Do Less and Relate More with Your Kids:

“The ability to be reflective is essential for relating well to others, because it enables us to try to see the world from the other person’s perspective as well as our own and to accept that there is always more than one way to view a situation....  

Reflective capacity is technically defined as a mental skill in which the mind is able to recognize (a) that all human behavior has meaning in terms of what is going on inside a person’s mind, such as their feelings, desires, intentions, motivations, and beliefs, and that this applies to one’s own behavior as well as the behavior of others; (b) that all people have a mind that is subjective, separate, and private; and (c) that what is in one person’s mind may be the same or may be different from what is going on inside someone else’s mind....

The mind is inherently subjective. Each mind views the world in its own way.... When we reflect, all we can really do is make a good guess or inference as to what is probably going on inside another person’s mind. We may be right. But we are not always right. That is why reflective parenting emphasizes that misunderstanding is possible and common, but by being reflective, a [person] is more likely to figure out and clarify misunderstandings when they occur. 

Whenever a person performs an action, there is always a reason why. There is always some intention or purpose underlying the action. As important as it is to know what action a person is doing, it is even more important to know the intention or purpose of that action."

Coincidentally, I learned about Regina Pally on April 25, 2017, when I attended UCLA Friends of the Semel Institute’s Open Mind Lecture: Dr. Regina Pally The Reflective Parent.

The information conveyed at both programs was entirely consistent. In fact, what the panelists were addressing was nothing less than empathy and self-reflection through the study of history.

You see, the panelists agreed that the historical education we receive is political in that the historical “narrative” taught serves a particular purpose. A narrative is nothing more than “a spoken or written account of connected events; a story.” As such, it’s important to consider who controls the curriculum and to question the motivation behind any given narrative.

Knowing this, the panelists agreed that the best teachers are those who cause their students to understand perspective and critically think in the context of the curriculum they’re mandated to teach. They were referring to the importance of teaching people to be reflective and critical about themselves, the world around them, and their place in the world, because the historical education we receive is politicized - as opposed to real. In fact, conflicts arise and are never really resolved when only one narrative is considered and others are disregarded. Moreover, they commented that democracies can’t function under such circumstances. After all, “as empathy wanes, so does critical thinking, and both concepts are essential to a democracy.”

Along those lines, they stated that we need to recognize our ability to do both evil and good and the impact our dehumanizing people makes.

The following is an excerpt from an article by Michael S. James titled Demonizing the Enemy a Hallmark of War that was published by ABC News:

“’For most human beings, it takes an awful lot to allow them to kill another human being,’ said Anthony Pratkanis, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. ‘The only way to do it is to justify the killing, to make the enemy look as evil as possible.’

Propaganda, both by governments and the private media, has evolved over the years as media has evolved. But, some say, the principle remains the same.

‘The secret in propaganda is that when you demonize, you dehumanize,’ said James Forsher, a film historian and documentary filmmaker who has studied propaganda films, and who is an assistant professor of mass communications at California State University, Hayward.

‘When you dehumanize, it allows you to kill your enemy and no longer feel guilty about it,’ he said. ‘That is why during World War II, a lot of caricatures became animals. … You can kill a monkey a lot more easily than you can kill a neighbor.’”

Dehumanizing others occurs as a direct result of the lack of empathy for a person or group of people.

Consider the following excerpt from an article titled Empathy and Sympathy in Ethics that was published in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“Empathy is a form of receptivity to the other; it is also a form of understanding. In the latter case, one puts oneself in the place of the other conceptually. In the former, one is open experientially to the affects, sensations, emotions that the other experiences. Undertaking an ethical inquiry without empathy – sensitivity to what is happening to and with the other – would be like engaging in an epistemological inquiry without drawing on the resources of perception. Thus, empathy is a method of access as well as a foundational structure as such....

Empathy does indeed supply the otherness of the other – simply stated, the other. It is a separate step to care for the other, say, altruistically, or not care for the other. The empathy provides me access to the suffering of the other….

As long as the affects (and so on) disclosed through empathy are such as to support the demand of the other and of one’s obligation to the other, then we are on firm ground. However, when the demand fails or is manipulated by advertising, social pressure, or propaganda to disqualify the other and reduce the other into an subhuman entity prior to extra-judicial execution, then the lack of an ethical (moral) criterion independent of affects is sorely missed....

It is important to note [that The Holocaust] was accompanied by and included the extrajudicial killing of other ‘life unworthy of life’ such as the mentally ill and retarded, gypsies, gays, communists, uncooperative members of other religious and political parties. However, the racial laws and anti-Semitic ideology that specifically preceded the event, targeting Jewish people, make it their Holocaust in a special and unhappy way….

It is the killing, not the lack of empathy that represents the moral problem. 

What made it easier for the soldiers to do their ‘duty’ – commit murder (genocide) – was the manipulation by the leaders to deflect the individual soldier’s natural empathy for the prisoner and to increase the soldier’s empathy for himself, deflecting the natural trajectory towards the other….

Humans with integrity and character will undertake the positive development of full, adult empathy so that the misuse does not occur or is made less likely.”

For those who are not aware, propaganda is “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view.”

However, one needn’t even have such an intent to make such an impact.

It has long been recognized that the meaning of words influences human behavior. In fact, the Bible says, ‘Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.’ (Bible, Proverbs 12:18 (NIV)). As they say, ‘the pen is mightier than the sword.’”

Yet, we have a great many religious and political leaders who fail to recognize that expression leads to oppression. Actually, many do realize that fact, which is the purpose for their narrative. Consider, for example, Missouri state Rep. Rick Brattin, who recently said that gays were less than human.

Last month, Psychology Today published my article titled Expression Leads to Oppression, in which I expressed shock and disbelief over Marco Rubio’s #expressionNOToppression initiative. With such uninformed and irresponsible leaders, it’s no surprise that democracies around the world have failed or are in jeopardy, our own included.

I’d like to circle back around to the following quote from Facing History and Ourselves: “People make choices. Choices make history.”

Empathy is one such choice. In fact, the following is an excerpt from an article by Daryl Cameron, Michael Inzlicht and William A. Cunningham titled Empathy Is Actually a Choice:

“Recent studies have shown that our empathy is dampened or constrained when it comes to people of different races, nationalities or creeds. These results suggest that empathy is a limited resource, like a fossil fuel, which we cannot extend indefinitely or to everyone.

What, then, is the relationship between empathy and morality?

Inspired by a competing body of recent research, we believe that empathy is a choice that we make whether to extend ourselves to others. The ‘limits’ to our empathy are merely apparent, and can change, sometimes drastically, depending on what we want to feel....

Empathy for people unlike us can be expanded, it seems, just by modifying our views about empathy....

Even those suffering from so-called empathy deficit disorders like psychopathy and narcissism appear to be capable of empathy when they want to feel it. Research conducted by one of us, William A. Cunningham, along with the psychologist Nathan Arbuckle, found that when dividing money between themselves and others, people with psychopathic tendencies were more charitable when they believed that the others were part of their in-group. Psychopaths and narcissists are able to feel empathy; it’s just that they don’t typically want to.

Arguments against empathy rely on an outdated view of emotion as a capricious beast that needs to yield to sober reason. Yes, there are many situations in which empathy appears to be limited in its scope, but this is not a deficiency in the emotion itself. In our view, empathy is only as limited as we choose it to be.”

Another of the infinite number of choices we make is how we deal with conflicts and disputes.

In 2016, Huffington Post published my article titled Cooperation or Combat? The Choice Is Yours!. The following is an excerpt from that article:

“‘The law (as practiced) is all about winning and not about the truth.

Generally speaking, the law itself is neutral - lawyers and their clients turn it into a win/lose dynamic.’

The problem is that a win/lose dynamic is combat and lawyers are trained for just such combat. They are not trained for cooperation and the personality types attracted to the field tend to be competitive, at best.

For quite some time, I’ve been saying, ‘You can only give what you have and teach what you know.’ Generally speaking, it is a mistake to expect anything other than combat from a litigator because that’s both who they are and how they’re trained. Since the default process in the United States for the handling of divorce and family law is litigation, the typical attorneys involved are litigators.

Another thing I’ve said for a very long time is ‘Outcomes are typically determined by the way in which the ‘game’ is designed.’ In fact, the Introduction to Putting Kids First in Divorce: How to Reduce Conflict, Preserve Relationships and Protect Children During and After Divorce opened with that quote.

If you want to achieve a more desired outcome, design your ‘game’ differently. A good start might be by consulting with a well-trained and highly skilled mediator from the outset, rather than with litigators.

You always have a choice.”

As explained in You Think You’re Helping, Do You?, our adversarial legal system is itself a form of violence. That article also provided as follows:

“There are ways of changing the paradigm from adversarial to facilitative. One way I’ve found effective is providing people with information from which they can better understand cause and effect with regard to litigation and conflict.

It never ceases to amaze me that people regularly contend that they can’t enter into a facilitative approach because they’re in conflict with each other, can’t communicate with each other, and don’t trust each other. Interestingly enough, lawyers and mediators well-trained in a facilitative approach have the knowledge and skills to de-escalate conflict, improve communication, and build or rebuild trust. In fact, that’s why facilitative mediation is called conflict resolution. In addition, ‘empathy is the key to conflict resolution or management.’”

In her book Daring Greatly, social science researcher Brene’ Brown explained that some of us see people divided into two groups, which she refers to as Vikings or Victims. Brown found that many of those with a Viking-or-Victim mentality work “in high-performance, super competitive cultures like law.” The following is an excerpt from Daring Greatly:

What emerged from these interviews and interactions was a lens on the world that essentially saw people divided into two groups (ahem, like me and Sir Ken Robinson) that I call Vikings or Victims....

[T]hese folks shared the belief that everyone without exception belongs to one of two mutually exclusive groups: Either you’re a Victim in life—a sucker or loser who’s always being taken advantage of and can’t hold your own—or you’re a Viking—someone who sees the threat of being victimized as a constant, so you stay in control, you dominate, you exert power over things, and you never show your vulnerability.

As I coded the data from these interviews, I kept thinking about the chapter in my dissertation on the French philosopher Jacques Derrida and binary opposition (the pairing of related terms that are opposite). While the respondents didn’t all use the same examples, a strong pattern of paired opposites emerged in the language they used to describe their worldview: winner or loser, survive or die, kill or be killed, strong or weak, leaders or followers, success or failure, crush or be crushed. And in case those aren’t clear enough examples, there’s the life motto of a high-achieving, take-no-prisoners lawyer, ‘The world is divided into assholes and suckers. It’s that simple.’

The source of their Viking-or-Victim worldview was not completely clear, but most attributed it to the values they had been taught growing up, the experience of surviving hardships, or their professional training....

In addition to socialization and life experiences, many of these folks held jobs or worked in cultures that reinforced the Viking-or-Victim mentality: We heard this from servicemen and -women, veterans, corrections and law-enforcement officers, and people working in high-performance, super competitive cultures like law, technology, and finance....

One issue that made these interviews some of the most difficult was the honesty with which people spoke about the struggles in their personal lives — dealing with high-risk behaviors, divorces, disconnection, loneliness, addiction, anger, exhaustion. But rather than seeing these behaviors and negative outcomes as consequences of their Viking-or-Victim worldview, they perceived them as evidence of the harsh win-or-lose nature of life…

[W]hen we lead, teach, or preach from a gospel of Viking or Victim, win or lose, we crush faith, innovation, creativity, and adaptability to change…. Lawyers – an example of a professional largely trained in win or lose, succeed or fail — have outcomes that aren’t much better. The American Bar Association reports that suicides among lawyers are close to four times greater than the rate of the general population.

An American Bar Association Journal article reported that experts on lawyer depression and substance abuse attributed the higher suicide rate to lawyers’ perfectionism and on their need to be aggressive and emotionally detached. And this mentality can trickle down into our home lives as well. When we teach or model to our children that vulnerability is dangerous and should be pushed away, we lead them directly into danger and disconnection.

The Viking or Victim armor doesn’t just perpetuate behaviors such as dominance, control, and power over folks who see themselves as Vikings, it can also perpetuate a sense of ongoing victimhood for people who constantly struggle with the idea that they’re being targeted or unfairly treated. With this lens, there are only two possible positions that people can occupy – power over or powerless.

In the interviews I heard many participants sound resigned to Victim simply because they didn’t want to become the only alternative in their opinion – Vikings. Reducing our life options to such limited and extreme roles leaves very little hope for transformation and meaningful change. I think that’s why there’s often a sense of desperation and feeling ‘boxed in’ around this perspective.…

Ultimately the question that best challenges the logic behind Viking or Victim for both groups is this: How are you defining success?

It turns out that in this win-or-lose, succeed-or-fail paradigm, Vikings are not victorious by any metric that most of us would label ‘success.’ Survival or winning may be success in the midst of competition, combat, or trauma, but when the immediacy of that threat is removed, merely surviving is not living. As I mentioned earlier, love and belonging are irreducible needs of men, women, and children, and love and belonging are impossible to experience without vulnerability. Living without connection – without knowing love and belonging – is not victory. Fear and scarcity fuel the Viking-or-Victim approach and part of reintegrating vulnerability means examining shame triggers; what’s fueling the win-or-lose fear? The men and women who made the shift from this paradigm to Wholeheartedness all talked about cultivating trust and connection in relationships as a prerequisite for trying on a less-combative way of engaging with the world.”

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that litigation attorneys are typically very bad referral sources for facilitative mediators and lawyers with a facilitative approach. Such an approach was described in Mediation: Negotiating a More Satisfactory Divorce that was published by Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation as follows:

In a facilitative mediation, the mediator focuses on helping parties carry out a smooth, open conversation.... Many divorce attorneys have begun to adopt a more facilitative approach—for example, by trying to de-escalate conflict and improve the quality of the relationship between the divorcing spouses.

Study participants whose mediator or lawyer took a facilitative approach to the negotiation, as measured by their tendency to engage in problem solving behaviors and help their clients focus on interests, generally reported high-quality outcomes.”

It used to frustrate me to no end that no matter how the information was conveyed, it just didn’t seem to get through to so many litigators. One family law litigator who attended a presentation of mine confided in me that he really enjoyed my presentation and agreed with most of what I had to say. He also told me that he doesn’t feel comfortable admitting this to any of his litigation colleagues because they just don’t “get it” or don’t want to “get it.” For what it’s worth, he also told me that I was very respectful of the litigators throughout my presentation. Another colleague who attended the program sent me an email the following day, in which she said, "Great presentation last night! Really spot on. Some of what you said was WAY over their heads but still important to get the message out!"

However, for reasons explained by Brene’ Brown, a person with a Viking-or-Victim mindset wouldn’t refer a matter to a facilitative mediator or a lawyer with a facilitative approach because it’s completely inconsistent with their worldview. Facilitative mediators and lawyers with a facilitative approach hoping to get referrals from a person with a Viking-or-Victim mindset is like a carnivore hoping to get a steak at a vegan restaurant.

It makes absolutely no difference that the empirical research supports a facilitative approach in family law matters because their reasoning is entirely based upon their Viking-or-Victim mentality. For goodness sake, just this afternoon, I received the following comment on my article You Think You’re Helping, Do You?:

“Bravo! I found this article to be absolutely superb and one of the most profound arguments in favor of ADR.”

If you’re wondering what this has to do with choices people make, it’s a choice to ask for a referral from a person with a Viking-or-Victim mentality. When asking a lawyer for a referral, you might consider their personality and philosophy and how that will impact their advice. After all, people can only give what they have and teach what they know.

The choices we make create history, so choose wisely.

You are reading

Empathy and Relationships

What Is Justice and When Is It Served?

“Winning” isn’t problem-solving, so playing to "win" isn't helpful.

In Mediation, Is Empathy Enough or Even Necessary?

De-escalate conflict by connecting with empathy, attention and respect.

Is Teaching Tolerance the Solution or the Problem?

The only difference between tolerance and intolerance is political correctness.