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Empathy Can Lead to Profound Insights

Empathy gleaned through perspective taking is essential to critical thinking.

Mohammed Hanif recently published an article in the New York Times titled Pakistan Has a Drinking Problem. As I read the article, I couldn’t help but think of social science researcher, Brene’ Brown, and her extensive research on vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. I also immediately realized that people would either read the article through judgmental or empathic lenses.

As Dr. Brown says, “empathy is incompatible with shame and judgment. Staying out of judgment requires understanding. We tend to judge those areas where we’re the most vulnerable to feeling shame ourselves. We don’t tend to judge others in areas where our sense of self-worth is stable and secure. In order to stay out of judgment, we must pay attention to our own triggers and issues.”

During the course of her research, Brown discovered the following twelve categories of shame: (1) appearance & body image; (2) money & work; (3) motherhood/fatherhood; (4) family; (5) parenting; (6) mental & physical health (including addiction); (7) sex; (8) aging; (9) religion; (10) speaking out; (11) surviving trauma; and (12) being stereotyped & labeled.

According to Brown, “shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection: Is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, that I won't be worthy of connection?”

In Hanif's article, the shame clearly involves both religion and being stereotyped & labeled.

This is exemplified as follows: “For Muslims in Pakistan, drinking alcohol is prohibited and talking about it is taboo.” In fact, a bottle of alcohol found in a politician’s possession “became an emblem of [that political party’s] immorality.” This was true in spite of the fact that “drinking and denying it is the oldest cocktail in the country.”

I immediately associated what Hanif had described with "sexual morality" and Christianity, which by no means discounts Islam's issues with that same topic. The association had to do with the description, rather than the topic itself.

I was reminded of something I had read in an article titled S.F. Catholic School Handbook to Denounce 'Grave Evil' of Same-Sex Relationships. That article stated in part as follows:

“Four Catholic high schools in the [San Francisco] area are having ‘sexual morality’ statements added to their employee handbooks.

The document ‘Statement of the High Schools of the Archdiocese of San Francisco Regarding Teachings and Practice of the Catholic Church,’ is set to be added under the leadership of Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, San Francisco TV station KPIX reports. It includes the direction that ‘extra-marital sexual relationships are gravely evil, including adultery, masturbation, fornication, the viewing of pornography and homosexual relations.’

Cordileone plans to add the new language, which comes from the Catholic catechism, to the handbook for the school year that will start this fall, the station reports. He also hopes to add language to the teachers' union contract stating that teachers ‘have a professional obligation not to act publicly to 'contradict, undermine or deny’ the religious message that the school exists to proclaim and which they are hired to advance,’ the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

Cordileone said the language simply makes clear what the church has always expected of teachers, the Chronicle notes. ‘The intention is certainly not to pry into the private lives of the teachers, and we’re certainly not going to do that,’ he said in a video explanation. ‘People are entitled to their private lives. But teachers also have to respect the mission of the school and the way they live their public lives.’”

Based upon that description, my understanding of the Catholic Church's official position on "sexual morality” is as follows:

"Extra-marital sexual relationships are gravely evil, including adultery, masturbation, fornication, the viewing of pornography and homosexual relations.” However, what happens in "private" isn't really the Church's concern, as long as it remains “private." Others can't judge that which they don't know. Therefore, go ahead and have extra-marital sexual relationships, commit adultery, masturbate, fornicate, watch porn, and engage in homosexual relationships, but do so in a manner in which it remains "private".

Along those same lines, Pope Francis has said “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Meanwhile, he supports laws banning marriage and adoption rights for same-sex couples.

Put into context, Pope Francis' statements are entirely consistent with the Catholic Church's official position on "sexual morality”, as described by Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone. You see, when same-sex couples marry or adopt, they are by no means being "private" about their relationships, and therein lies the problem. It all comes down to maximizing the power of shame and "sexual morality" involves far more categories of shame than does drinking alcohol.

As Brown explains, "shame derives its power from being unspeakable. The less we talk about it, the more power we turn over to it."

In her book Daring Greatly, Dr. Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. Through [her] research, [she] found that vulnerability is the glue that holds relationships together. It’s the magic sauce. To navigate life with a partner, you have to be the person that they can come home to at the end of the day, the one that they feel comfortable revealing themselves to. Without vulnerability, there can be no love, trust, or intimacy.” Moreover, shame and vulnerability are tied together. “Connection is the ability to forge meaningful authentic relationships. Unfortunately, our perceived vulnerabilities trigger our shame. Furthermore, when we are experiencing shame, we hide our vulnerabilities out of fear of disconnection. In fact, shame breeds fear, blame and disconnection.

Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance (connection) and belonging. It is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we aren’t good enough. For men, it’s the fear of not being wealthy enough, tough enough, or smart enough. The number one shame trigger for men is being perceived as weak. Men walk this tightrope where any sign of weakness elicits shame, and so they’re afraid to make themselves vulnerable for fear of looking weak. For women, shame is do it all, do it perfectly & never let them see you sweat. It’s this web of unattainable, conflicting, competing expectations about who they’re supposed to be. It’s a straight jacket.

We often discharge our shame in ways that are inconsistent with who we are as people, such as acting out toward those closest to us. In order to deal with shame, some of us move away from others by silencing ourselves, secret keeping, and disappearing into our own lives. Some of us move toward others by people pleasing. Yet others move against others by using shame and aggression to fight shame and aggression.

Fortunately, shame can’t survive being spoken. It just dies on the vine. The antidote to shame is empathy. Can they talk to you about the tough stuff? Vulnerability is not weakness -- it’s courage.”

Whether we’re talking about sexuality, alcohol consumption, or any number of things, “morality” is often defined by religious beliefs, which then influence governmental regulation.

In fact, Prohibition both in Pakistan and in the United States was religiously based. Furthermore, because people have far more things in common with each other than they do differences, the manner in which Prohibition has played out in Pakistan is incredibly similar to what occurred in the United States.

I absolutely loved Hanif’s article because of the perspective it provides.

Contrary to what many like to believe, what is and isn't moral varies from culture to culture and changes over time. In fact, according to Moral Relativism, “moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (for instance, that of a culture or a historical period) and no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others.... [Therefore], we should refrain from passing moral judgments on beliefs and practices characteristic of cultures other than our own."

Unfortunately, the wealth and power exception to the applicability of "equal justice" referenced in Hanif's article occurs everywhere and has throughout history.

Hanif also managed to cut to the heart discrimination, when he said, "the stores are supposed to sell only to non-Muslims, but they don’t discriminate." Keep in mind, he also said, "It’s true that most people in Pakistan don’t drink because they are Muslim. But many more don’t drink because they are Muslim and poor. Nobody abstains from drinking because it’s prohibited by law."

As political and religious leaders well know, it's easy to control people through shame because, as Dr. Brown says, shame breads fear, blame and disconnection.

In her books Daring Greatly and Rising Strong, Brown explains it as follows:

“We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both. Not at the same time….

For leaders, vulnerability often looks and feels like discomfort. In his book ‘Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us’, Seth Goldin writes, ‘Leadership is scarce because few people are willing to go through the discomfort required to lead. This scarcity makes leadership valuable…. It’s uncomfortable to stand in front of strangers. It’s uncomfortable to propose an idea that might fail. It’s uncomfortable to challenge the status quo. It’s uncomfortable to resist the urge to settle. When you identify the discomfort, you’ve found the place where a leader is needed. If you’re not uncomfortable in your work as a leader, it’s almost certain you’re not reaching your potential as a leader.’…

Disengagement is the issue underlying the majority of problems I see in families, schools, communities, and organizations and it takes many forms…. We disengage to protect ourselves from vulnerability, shame, and feeling lost without purpose. We also disengage when we feel like the people who are leading us – our boss, our teachers, our principal, our clergy, our parents, our politicians – aren’t living up to their end of the social contract.

Politics is a great, albeit painful, example of social contract disengagement. Politicians on both sides of the isle are making laws that they’re not required to follow or that don’t affect them, they’re engaging in behaviors that would result in most of us getting fired, divorced, or arrested. They’re espousing values that are rarely displayed in their behavior. And just watching them shame and blame each other is degrading for us. They’re not living up to their side of the social contract and voter turnout statistics show that we’re disengaging.

Religion is another example of social contract disengagement. First, disengagement is often the result of leaders not living by the same values they're preaching. Second, in an uncertain world, we often feel desperate for absolutes. It's the human response to fear. When religious leaders leverage our fear and need for more certainty by extracting vulnerability from spirituality and turning faith into 'compliance and consequences,' rather than teaching and modeling how to wrestle with the unknown and how to embrace mystery, the entire concept of faith is bankrupt on its own terms. Faith minus vulnerability equals politics, or worse, extremism. Spiritual connection and engagement is not built on compliance, it's the product of love, belonging, and vulnerability....

Compassion: Recognizing the light and dark in our shared humanity, we commit to practicing loving-kindness with ourselves and others in the face of suffering.

Empathy: The most powerful tool of compassion, empathy is an emotional skill that allows us to respond to others in a meaningful, caring way. Empathy is the ability to understand what someone is experiencing and to reflect back that understanding. It’s important to note here that empathy is understanding what someone is feeling, not feeling it for them… We can fake empathy, but when we do, it’s not healing or connecting. The prerequisite for real empathy is compassion. We can only respond empathically if we are willing to be present to someone’s pain. Empathy is the antidote to shame and it is the heart of connection.”

With regard to religion, Brown further explains, "We make everything that's uncertain certain. Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty. 'I'm right, you're wrong. Shut up.' That's it....

Faith didn’t make my life less vulnerable or comfortable, it simply offered to travel with me through the uncertainty.

As I continue to study vulnerability and examine the intersection of vulnerability and faith, it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that faith without vulnerability is extremism – it’s using faith as a tool of certainty....

I love this quote from theologian Richard Rohr:

'My scientist friends have come up with things like ‘principles of uncertainty’ and dark holes. They’re willing to live inside imagined hypotheses and theories. But many religious folks insist on answers that are always true. We love closure, resolution and clarity, while thinking that we are people of ‘faith’! How strange that the very word ‘faith’ has come to mean its exact opposite.'"

To make matters worse, using shame as a means of control is incredibly damaging.

According to Dr. Brown, shame is a toxic emotion. She says that "separating self from behavior is the difference between shame and guilt. Shame is very correlated with addiction, depression, suicide, aggression, violence, bullying, and eating disorders. Guilt, on the other hand, is inversely correlated with those same outcomes."

Tragically a great many people wrongly believe that shaming others produces positive results, which explains why we see so many shame-related symptoms in our society.

The good news is that shame loses its grip over us when we share our story.

In any event, in his article, Hanif goes on to explain that “the laws can be cruel and absurd. Last summer, the local police in Karachi banned liquor stores from keeping freezers, in order to stop consumers from buying a cold beer. Apparently chilled beer was a threat to our faith and to peace, but warm beer was just warm beer.”

Interestingly enough, when religious beliefs designed solely in an attempt to control things through shame that can't otherwise be controlled then influence governmental regulation, "the laws can be cruel and absurd."

In the United States, consider the "gay panic" defense, which is just one such example. That defense is commonly used as "justification" for killing someone whose sexual orientation falls within the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) category.

Religions and militaries discourage empathy to "outsiders" by focusing on their differences rather than their similarities, and dehumanizing them.

Fearing disconnection associated with shame, when the veil of privacy is lifted, denial is a common response.

Hanif described it as follows: "No wonder Pakistanis go to any lengths to ensure they’re not seen drinking, even when they smell like a barrel of liquor." In fact, when the police "discovered a bottle of Johnny Walker Double Black" while searching the politician's car, the politician initially "claimed it contained honey."

From Brown's perspective, "a faith community can choose to be a place of hurt or healing. That is a binary. Those are the only two choices. There is no neutrality. That's it. If you're not healing, then you are hurting."

This is consistent with the results of an international study from the University of Chicago, which was published Nov. 5, 2015 in Current Biology, and was described by Prof. Jean Decety, who led the team of developmental psychologists, as follows:

Together, these results reveal the similarity across countries in how religion negatively influences children’s altruism. They challenge the view that religiosity facilitates prosocial behavior, and call into question whether religion is vital for moral development—suggesting the secularization of moral discourse does not reduce human kindness. In fact, it does just the opposite.”

Studies have also shown that "college kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago."

Meanwhile, the most terrifying aspect of all this is that "critical thinking, especially critical thinking that leads to compassionate action, requires a wellspring of empathy. The connection between critical thinking and empathy might not be obvious; it might even seem contradictory. However, if critical thinking involves seeking, analyzing, and evaluating multiple perspectives on a complex question or issue, then being able to 'see' through someone else's eyes is essential.... The empathy gained from perspective taking is a precursor to nuanced thinking, communicating effectively, and taking positive action in the real world."

In "The Day After: Obama on His Legacy, Trump's Win, and the Path Forward, President Obama explained the importance of empathy and critical thinking as follows:

"The number of people who have a strong belief in a fair, just, equal, inclusive America is the majority and is growing….

There are consequences to elections. It means that the next Supreme Court justice is going to be somebody who doesn’t reflect my understanding of the Constitution….

This is not simply an economic issue. This is a cultural issue. And a communications issue….

What is true is that the ability of Republicans to win state elections, congressional elections and Senate elections is going to be a challenge for Democrats for a while, unless they can change perceptions about the Democratic Party and progressive causes in these rural or predominantly white areas, particularly in the Midwest. It's going to be harder to do in the South for a lot of historical reasons….

In North Carolina, a state I won once by one point and a state I lost once by one point, a Democratic governor [appears to have] won in North Carolina despite Trump winning North Carolina. And part of the reason he won was North Carolinians were tired of a hard-right agenda by the sitting Republican governor, and these biased laws that had been passed directed at the LGBT community that people thought went too far….

If you want to persuade me that everything is going to be terrible, then we can talk ourselves into that. Or we can act….

The biggest challenge that I think we have right now in terms of this divide is that the country receives information from completely different sources. And it's getting worse. The whole movement away from curated journalism to Facebook pages, in which an article on climate change by a Nobel Prize-winning scientist looks pretty much as credible as an article written by a guy in his underwear in a basement, or worse. Or something written by the Koch brothers. People are no longer talking to each other; they're just occupying their different spheres…. It requires better civics education among our kids so that we can sort through what's true and what's not….

Aside from any particular issue, the president needs to recognize that this is not about you. This is not about your power, your position or the perks, the Marine band. This is about this precious thing that we’ve inherited and that we want to pass on. And for me at least, that means you surround yourself with really good people, that you spend time learning and understanding what these issues are because they really actually have an impact on people. They're not games that we're playing. And that to the best of your ability, you're making the decisions that you think are right for the American people – even when they're not popular, even when they're not expedient. And the satisfaction you get from that is that when you leave this place, you can feel like you've been true to this immense privilege and responsibility that’s been given to you."

President Obama was spot on, in my opinion. In fact, what he said is in complete accord with the following email I received from someone involved in the behavioral science/policy realm:

"I read your wonderful article Bridging Our National Divide Demands Empathy and Compassion and couldn't agree more. I actually had a similar conversation with a few of my more extreme left / right leaning friends regarding what is to be done moving forward in America. I think due to the brinkmanship in our politic realm, the complete disregard of a spectrum of views and ideologies in our media and conversations, people have started to think with the 'out group' or 'in group' mentality. Many in our society completely disregard the need for critical thinking and empathy, which is imperative in a democracy. I forwarded your article to a few of my friends. Your work in general is very impressive and definitely insight that I think our society needs to be more cognizant of."

From my vantage point, only love of each other for our shared humanity and acceptance of each other's differences can reverse this extremely dangerous trend. Notice, I said acceptance and not tolerance.

J. Krishnamurti explained tolerance as follows:

"You have your beliefs, and another has his; you hold to your particular form of religion and another to his; you are a Christian, another is a Mahomedan, and yet another a Hindu. You have these religious dissensions and distinctions, but yet you talk of brotherly love, tolerance and unity - not that there must be uniformity of thought and ideas. The tolerance of which you speak is merely a clever invention of the mind; this tolerance merely indicates the desire to cling to your own idiosyncrasies, your own limited ideas and prejudices, and allow another to pursue his own. In this tolerance there is no intelligent diversity, but only a kind of superior indifference. There is utter falsity in this tolerance. You say, 'You continue in your own way, and I shall continue in mine; but let us be tolerant, brotherly.' When there is true brotherliness, friendliness, when there is love in your heart, then you will not talk of tolerance. Only when you feel superior in your certainty, in your position, in your knowledge, only then do you talk of tolerance. You are tolerant only when there is distinction. With the cessation of distinction, there will be no talk of tolerance. Then you will not talk of brotherhood, for then in your hearts you are brothers."

All of our leaders (political, religious, and otherwise) have a binary choice to make and time is of the essence. Are they going to continue demonizing and dehumanizing people for their differences or are they going to teach love and acceptance?

More from Mark B. Baer, Esq.
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