On The Critical List: Empathic Man

16 Feb

When confronted by someone with whom you disagree what are your first instincts?  Do you immediately think “This is just wrong, I’m right, this is wrong.”  Do you think “I don’t agree with this but I can understand how someone might think it, even though I think it’s wrong.”  If the former then be careful.  Your empathy may be failing or gone altogether.

Empathy is an ability to put oneself in the shoes of another person and understand their perspective.  It isn’t sympathy.  Sympathy is when you take an empathic understanding and translate it to an emotional concern.  Sympathy isn’t of concern in the point I’m trying to make.  In this article I would say Suzanne Moore has it wrong.  People probably can empathise with why the poor woman is buying lottery tickets, they just can’t sympathise with her.  They understand why she’s there, they can envisage what brought her there, they just don’t sympathise with people who think putting money given them by the state on the lottery is a particularly sensible thing to be doing.

If at this stage you’re thinking “Consider the point of view of someone I know to be wrong?  Why?  What will that achieve?  I should just tell them they’re wrong and why they’re wrong and why I’m right.” then you may not be open to the ideas that I’m going to put forward.

It’s my belief that in debate empathy is essential.  It is only by understanding the position of the person with whom you are debating and understanding how they arrived at that position that you can hope to address their position.  Otherwise what you end up with is the equivalent of two fat men standing in a room and shouting at each other. [OK, they don’t need to be fat I think it makes a better mental image though.]

The other thing you need to have what can be appreciably considered a debate is a willingness to be flexible and to acknowledge that some of your points may be erroneous.  I would say that such a willingness would stem from an ability to empathise.  Otherwise, again, two fat men shouting at each other.

The ability to empathise seems sadly lacking when you look at what passes for debate on the internet.  The only time people seem willing to empathise is when they already agree with their interlocutor and then the need for debate is moot and all that results is an echo chamber.

I believe that the way forward for society as a whole is for people of differing opinions to be able discuss their differences, find their commonalities and forge a mutual way forward.  What I see is increasing disarray and stratification forged by the Internet and other debate mediums.  What’s to be done?  I don’t know.  What’s your perspective?

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Posted by on February 16, 2012 in Commentariat


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