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No, Self-Centeredness Is Killing America

A lack of empathy is at the root of our ills

This post is in response to
Anti-Intellectualism Is Killing America
Source: Pixabay

June 20, 2015

David Niose rightly points out one problem in America: anti-intellectualism and the abandonment of critical thinking in certain sectors of society. However, I think this is simply a spoke on the deeper, more central issue that is at the hub of why we hate, are polarized and sometimes kill in the name of our beliefs.

We are very, very self-centered and therefore we believe our own snuff.

Racism, sexism/misognyny, gay hatred/homophobia, religious hatred—they all boil down to valuing one’s own group and perspective over another group’s rights and perspectives. As I wrote in my previous blog post (Forgiving the Unforgivable: From Hatred to Empathy)

“Evolutionarily speaking, as biologist E.O. Wilson has pointed out, we think in terms of in-group and out-group. As long as we are defensive with our group affiliations (racial, religious, national, gender), hatred will be inevitable. Defensiveness occurs on the individual, synaptic level (the amygdala’s reactions to threat), but is propagated and reinforced by sociocultural forces that surround us—from movies and pop culture to neighborhoods to, yes, social media.”

More than a gap in the capacity to think critically, we have failures of empathy that puts walls between us. On social media as in life, many people would rather be “right than related.” The political parties are polarized; the middle has been eroded, as well as the ability to compromise and empathize. As the saying goes, “the world is divided into people who are right.”

Daniel Goleman has demonstrated that emotional intelligence, including empathy, is a far better predictor of business success than IQ, competency, etc. Critical thinking, in other words, can only take you so far. It’s emotional intelligence that leads to success within organizations. He breaks down EI into self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills. Emotional intelligence and empathy can be taught and cultivated in children and adults, just as critical reasoning can be developed in the classroom and in life.

Mr. Niose, thank you for instigating a bit of critical thinking on my part! I think you’re doing a tremendous job to argue for reason. I hope you’d agree that the best reasoning depends on intersubjective thinking, that is, taking other people and perspectives into consideration.

As the Dalai Lama says, if you want to be happy, practice compassion. If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. My corollary is “if you want to be unhappy, be self-centered. If you want others to be unhappy, be self-centered.”

From a Buddhist perspective, ignorance is defined as the belief in a separately existing, independent self. In other words, self-centeredness. Obviously, a person who kills out of hatred is by definition self-centered and lacking in empathy.

QED: Self-centeredness is killing America!

Update (6/21/15): Thanks to the commentors and readers, most of whom have been positive (and a few snarky and mean, I have to say). Self-centeredness can be broken down more. As one person pointed out, self-centeredness does lead to cognitive distortions and biases. Self-centeredness can also channel an individual's frustrations and dissatisfactions into blame, hatred, hostility, racism and other forms of bias. I think I implied that by saying "we believe our own snuff." Some of the commentors prove this by making wild (and incorrect) assumptions about my ethics, commitments to the less fortunate, and knowledge of Buddhism. Perhaps I should have taken more time in my writing; the post condenses quite a bit and might come off as glib. I'll take that into consideration in the future.

It's interesting that some of the commentors' biases came out in the form of attacks—e.g. self-centeredness came out as an attack, in their cases. That proves my point that empathy (dare I say love?) can be seen as the royal road beyond self-centeredness. Kindness, at the very least, helps. But online interaction often doesn't lead to kind behavior. See "Is Social Media Inevitably Sociopathic?"

The debate of "reason vs. emotion" is age old. Today we recognize that it's not either/or but both. Marsha Linehan's formulation of the "wise mind" as the overlap and integration of emotional thinking and reason is helpful. I'm reminded that in many Asian languages, mind and heart are represented by the same word/character. Mind/Heart is one.

But I have to say that Niose's idea that "ignorance (anti-intellectualism) is at the root of racism" is only partially helpful. We have to recognize that the racist reasoning that the killer absorbed had its own strange, defensive logic, much of it based on fear and anger. What it lacked was empathy. It was very self-centered and biased in favor of the "in-group": a particular kind of white male. Niose's reasoning does promote a division, an us vs. them mentality, which is in itself a bias, a failure of empathy, and perhaps even of critical reasoning. It enables us to, as comedian Eddie Pepitone said, "project our insecurities onto other people and then judge them." Noise takes particular aim at relgion/fundamentalism and corporations. I don't know how this broadside helps us communicate with groups with whom we disagree. I think taking more strategic aim against hatred, greed and self-centeredness, helps us all in the long run. Also, it seems a bit gauche to attack the worst in religion in the wake of the Charleston church massacre. The relatives of victims and community there are highlighting the best of faith, as I noted in my last blog post, Forgiving the Unforgivable: From Hatred to Empathy.

In other words, no one is a perfect "intellectual" or critical thinker in and of themselves, particularly when it involves human relations. We all need to think outside the box of our own skulls. Empathy and listening help us to do that. Reasonable people can have different opinions; otherwise logical people can harbor racist ideas, which they defend with reason. I don't think reason is enough, or is even reasonable without empathy.

I'm glad Niose's post is getting such wide reach, because his ideas should be out in the culture. Also his reach enables my post to get some traction as well. I hope that in some small way, we both contribute to more critical thinking as well as more empathy.

ALSO SEE "Fighting Back Against Bias", another reply to Niose's articles.

© 2015 Ravi Chandra, M.D. All rights reserved.

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