The images circulating after the now infamous chemical attack on civilians in Syria last week are horrific: bodies twitching in the streets, children foaming from the mouth and convulsing as family, neighbors and rescue-workers hurriedly rush to hose the poison from their writhing, suffocating forms. Instantly upon seeing these images, a tight knot formed in the pit of my stomach. Outraged, incredulous, disgusted, fearful, and deeply disturbed, I quickly snapped together a reactionary Facebook response - one that demanded an answer from no one, targeted rhetoric that had yet to be established, and condemned the actions of unknown agents. After several hours of distracting myself and upon further, masturbatory review of my own rant, I edited the incendiary reaction down to three simple words: This is important.
I offer this anecdote not to highlight the near-scandalous enjoyment I glean from reading what I've previously written, but rather as a cautionary tale of sorts. Too soon after my misguided yet pointed paragraph, President Trump had paved a new narrative, using much of the same imagery I've described here along with repeated emphasis on heart-string buzzwords such as 'beautiful babies' and the like. He takes a powerful position; a broad, moral imperative that has and will continue to appeal to wide swaths of the population, despite the President's historically low approval ratings and many allegations of flagrant misconduct. My purpose here isn't to disparage Donald Trump, there's certainly enough fuel to keep that particular dumpster fire blazing for some time to come. Rather, I propose that empathy-based reactions are far more damaging than beneficial for the continued existence of our species.
When the motives behind Facebook rants and missile launches intersect, the efficacy of emotional manipulation ought to come into question. Surely it's a widely-used tactic with a long and storied past; wars have been declared, religions have made their appeals to wayward souls, all feeding the masses with incendiary rhetoric to manipulate its audiences to whatever ends. Sometimes, as with humanitarian aid, that strong, emotional pull could be considered a just and useful incentive and certainly many have benefited from this kind of mental manipulation. However, psychological studies have begun to lead cognitive scientists to believe that these kinds of appeals are not only ineffective in the long-run, but also that overstimulating empathetic reactions harden us to future moral appeals. Yale professor and author of Against Empathy: The Case for Logical Compassion, Dr. Paul Bloom described the problem with empathy in a recent podcast (Waking Up, with Sam Harris):
"So, you can feel empathy: I see you suffer and I feel your pain and I zoom in on that, but you could also feel compassion where you care for somebody, you love them, you want them to thrive, you want them to be happy, but you don't feel their pain.. they [Tanya Singer and Mathew Ricard] did these studies where they trained people to feel empathy, to feel the suffering of others and then, they trained another group to feel compassion, and the way they do that is through loving kindness meditation, where you care about others but do not feel their pain. Now, it turns out, these activate entirely different parts of the brain...but more to the point, they have different effects: the empathy training makes people suffer, it makes people selfish, it leads to burn-out, while the compassion training is pleasurable - people enjoy it, they enjoy the feeling of kindness towards other people and it makes them nicer."
Bloom draws a clear line between the two concepts, later going on to describe cognitive empathy as a kind of intelligence that is neither morally good nor bad - simply an ability to understand the desires of others:
"The cognitive empathy...is an understanding of what goes on in the minds of other people. Sometimes we call this mind reading, or theory of mind, or social intelligence and to me it's neither good nor bad, it's a tool. If you Sam, want to make the world a better place and help people, help your family, help others, you can't do it without knowing what other people want - what affects people, what peoples' interests are, what they believe. Any good person, any good policy-maker needs to have high cognitive empathy. On the other hand, suppose you wanted to bully and humiliate people, to seduce them against their will, to con them, to torture them, here too high cognitive empathy will help. If you want to make me miserable, it'd really help to know how I work and how my mind works. So, cognitive empathy is a form of intelligence, like any sort of intelligence can be used in different ways...the worst people in the world have high cognitive empathy, it's how they're able to do so much damage."
When I wrote that first, fiery denunciation, I had seen the story and video crop up in many of my virtual haunts for hours before ever having opened a link. I found myself intentionally navigating away from the story, knowing full-well that it would cause me some sort of mental anguish. Eventually, guilt and morbid curiosity swayed me to read and watch the harrowing and haunting story unfold, resulting in a useless rant that served no purpose other than to potentially draw similar vitriol from those who might have viewed it. This experience could be a case study for Dr. Bloom's assertions: I was emotionally burnt out from countless stories of equal severity that permeate our lives - selfishly cold in first trying to ignore something so important and that, once overcoming that insensitivity, my reaction was squarely based in empathetic feelings toward the victims of the chemical attack.
In a media culture involving a 24-hour news cycle and targeted virtual vignettes, both competing for higher ratings and more views with the most compellingly morbid and sensational stories available, that which is tragic becomes commonplace - experiencing sorrow akin to breathing and blinking to those who have felt so strongly in the past. Compassion offers freedom from this kind of oppression, emphasizing a desire for others to succeed and thrive, rather than suffer from a pain that our beleaguered brains tend to shelve. Be wary of those who make appeals to our easily manipulated and cognitively exhausting emotions. Politicians, generals, priests, and demagogues could very well be robbing us of objectivity in matters much more complicated and nuanced than primate anger and sorrow have the ability to adequately navigate.
This is important.