Human Empathy: An Essential Component for Human Society

Contemplating people's hatred may be necessary for repairing the world.

Posted Aug 25, 2011


Have you ever let yourself feel the hatred in the world? I mean, turned off all the noise, gone to a quiet place and contemplate how many people hate other people and the ways they express that hate. I also mean contemplate the source of my own hatred and the ways in which I fear and hate other people.

This is an unpleasant task, maybe akin to Plato's Cave or a Shamanistic death. Not for the faint of heart, I'm sure. I can barely write about this without crying and when I've let myself truly do this exercise, I am not good company for several days. It is a lonely exercise. Having someone to talk to while doing this sort of defeats the purpose.

Maybe I'm alone in this and I'm revealing my own special dark side, but I cannot help but wonder if more people actually did this, actually felt this deeply, if the world would not be a better place. Because at the end of this exercise, I usually find empathy, not bitterness. Most especially I find empathy for the anawim, a Hebrew word for the chosen little ones, the ones who are hurt most by this world and for whom, God is said to love the most.

Girls bullying another girl, stop the hate, learn emphathy.

Learn Empathy!

Two emails set me on this path this morning and led me to write this entry. One was a comment left at regarding a controversial book aimed at teaching 4-to-11-year-old girls that in order to be healthy, successful and popular, they must be thin. The book includes a story line in which the main character of the book decides to lose weight because she has no friends and the other kids tease her about her weight. The email comment was saying something to the effect that children should hear this message, including the bullying aspects of it, because if they didn't learn young that their bodies were not okay, they would never learn how to control their bodies.

The other email was calling for action to ask Congress not to cut spending on world hunger because every 9 seconds that passes by on this planet, a child dies of a hunger-related condition. The juxtaposition of these two emails were almost more than I could take. The hatred implied in both of these was palpable.

I could write about how problematic the book is, but plenty of other people have done that. I could write about the current budget crisis and the super committee's inevitable cutting of vital social programs, but plenty of other people (pdf) have done that as well. What I see missing from the public debate is the consequences of the underlying hatred these actions rely upon.

Hatred is important to power. It is a rallying cry for most wars. It is the bond that brings people together to fight for whatever cause pleases those in power. Without hatred, power cannot control. With it people can be led to do all kinds of unspeakable horrors to other people. Hatred goes hand in hand with fear in the world of politics. Fear and hatred are mechanisms of power.

But hatred is a resource drain and unless we have leaders who understand this, we are destined to destroy ourselves. Hatred takes up time and energy for both the haters and the hated. That time and energy could be used to pursue much more productive endeavors such as feeding people, solving energy needs, or even producing a beautiful work of art. Hatred fills the heart and leads the hater to concentrate fully on the object of hate, thus preventing that time and energy to be spent growing and nurturing things. Being hated is also antithetical to productivity as often barriers are placed in the paths of the hated that take time and energy to overcome, if they can be overcome. Often the result of being hated is dying young and violently.

Among those children who die every nine seconds or those girls who will spend their lives "controlling" their bodies, there could have been the one who figured out a cure for cancer, or who discovered how to make fusion energy work, or who created an inspirational poem or song or film that leads to a more peaceful existence for all those who behold it. Death, injury, illness or, even preoccupation with appearance do not help the world in the long run. These are real human beings who had real potential. We as a human race are losing something every time someone dies or lives a limited life.

I cannot help but wonder what would happen if we stopped teaching girls to care more about their appearances than the world around them and instead spent the same amount of energy teaching them empathy. I wonder if some of them might grow up to solve the hunger problem in the world and save those kids who are dying every 9 seconds.

In their now classic book, White Racism, Joe Feagin, Hernan Vera and Pinar Batur write about human empathy:

Empathy is an essential component of human social life. Empathy tells us that child's cry means discomfort or hunger. Empathy allows us to relate pleasure to a smile and pain to lament. Empathy permits us to come together and communicate. Empathy requires personal effort. Most importantly for our arguments here, empathy is essential for the resolution of racial oppression and conflict. Empathy at the individual level can make real equality possible at the societal level.

I would broaden this focus and say that empathy is the cure for hatred. One cannot hate another without dehumanizing them in some way or another. Hatred of people based upon their perceived group affiliation is especially dehumanizing. Deciding that an individual is a particular way simply because of how they look or their heritage requires seeing them as less than human.

Please understand, I think there is a place for "hate" as a human emotion. I hate war. I hate bigotry. I hate bullying. I hate wastefulness of human life. I hate poverty. I hate power that drives people to hurt themselves and others. On a personal level, in given specific moments, I even have hated some individuals because of what they have done to me. But hate not grounded in behavior but painted in broad strokes that regard other people as non-human cannot do anything but harm. American journalist, Peter Finley Dunne once encouraged us, "Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable." Hate can be the feeling that leads to the anger that leads to fighting injustice. But such a process requires a personal and social awareness that many of us refuse to engage.

Ice Cave exit, worth the trip

Worth the Trip!

I learned another Hebrew phrase recently: tikkun olam. It means, repairing the world. Fostering empathy is a form of tikkun olam. Empathy can be learned and as the quote above suggests, it takes some effort. For me, that effort includes feeling the hate. That's not a hard thing for me to do. I've been bullied and hated many times in my life. In the 70s pop-psychology lingo, "I can relate." But just knowing hatred is not enough. If you go through the cave and come out the other side, you find that empathy. It is not an easy journey and it is one that must be taken more than once. But it is a journey that will give you strength if you are hated and give you empathy when you work to repair the world. In short, it is worth the trip.


About the Author

Pattie Thomas, Ph.D.
Pattie Thomas, Ph.D., is a medical sociologist and author of Taking Up Space: How Eating Well and Exercising Regularly Changed My Life, a sociological memoir.

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