Have we forgotten how empathy works?

Have we forgotten how empathy works?

Post-truth. Social media “echo chambers”. Fear of the “other”.

It’s a pretty interesting time to be a citizen of the world, particularly when we look back at 2016.

There has been a lot of commentary about elections that have polarised and shocked people. Ultimately due to the side effect of our social media echo chambers, where the truth is formed by other peoples’ perceptions and quickly becomes an acceptable narrative. Then there’s our treatment of other cultures and their marginalisation in society. Above all this is the most shocking issue this year — how, as a community, empathy has been seemingly been put on the back burner, or at least to a large degree we seem to have forgotten what and how empathy works.

The news media has been particularly bad at whipping up fear of the “other”. It’s almost like we’ve experienced a global “unfriending”. People have been fed what they already believe on social media via Facebook logarithms and Google’s associated predictive technologies.

One thing has become very apparent. We have lost the ability to exercise hospitality, to invite people around our metaphorical tables to listen to their stories and share our own. In effect we have lost what connects us deeply to each other — our empathy.

Discussions and mutual understanding have been usurped by social media diatribe and misunderstanding.

Of the many polarising debates around the recent Presidential election, our Government’s policies concerning asylum seekers and refugees, as well as the portrayal of minorities in the media, it seems pop culture has been giving us the commentary we need to hear. We just need to watch and listen.

Conversation, understanding and dialogue

Most recently we had the well-publicised First Contact. This ground breaking SBS program is in its second series.

The program is a social experiment that seeks to immerse six white Australians with differing viewpoints and knowledge in the deep end with First Nations people. As the program unfolded viewers were given a glimpse into our Indigenous culture, in the process exposing some ugly truths and racist viewpoints.

What became apparent as the program progressed over its three nights, was that in being immersed in a different culture and listening to the stories and struggles of others empathy emerged, or at least a better and more helpful form of conversation, understanding and dialogue played out. But this was only possible if prejudices were put aside.

Jenna Martin recently interviewed her father Ray Martin, host of First Contact for SBS and he commented on those in the program who struggled to see a different viewpoint: “[Former One Nation politician] David Oldfield surprised me in that he didn’t change his attitude. There were a couple of times when he was moved by their [First Nations Peoples] plight but he didn’t change his attitude. He said ‘to experience something doesn’t mean you change’, but I think if you experience something and you don’t change then you haven’t actually listened. And if you say you’re ignorant which is what he said and then all you do is talk rather than listen then you’re not going to change. The danger is that people who are like that — who aren’t prepared to listen — hear nothing.”

So it is that listening — to other peoples’ stories and their plight — helps us to begin to empathise and to undertstand.

Communication as a game changer

Conversation, listening and understanding of the “other” and the importance of communication were the key themes in the recent film Arrival, which arrived in theatres in late November. Director Denis Villeneuve has proven with his latest sci-fi thriller that overcoming the anxieties of xenophobia and a fear of the unknown is possible. If we can just learn to put aside our differences and come together to work for the greater good, we can ensure the survival of humanity as we know it.

Do they want to hurt us? Do they want to be friendly? Do they want war? And how are we ever going to learn to interact with one another, when we come from such vastly different backgrounds, know nothing about each other, and are unable to communicate? These are the questions presented in Arrival. Villeneuve dares to suggest a different route. It may be confusing and frustrating at first, but inevitably, the path to cooperation between races is lined with patience, understanding, inclusion, and a slow but steady gaining of knowledge.

The film examines how immersion in another (admittedly alien) culture can actually alter ones’ worldview. Above all though, it also analysed how humanity should be working together, across continents and governments to understand how we can cooperate. A message that is both timely and poignant as we land at the end of 2016.

If one thing resonates when watching Arrival, it is that it encourages and challenges our thinking and perception around communication being a tool for connection, empathy and understanding.

If we are to embrace what Jesus taught us, about loving our neighbour, no matter what the cost, we should begin to understand just how important the foreigner or alien is in the Bible’s narrative:  “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt” (Lev. 19:34).

Without giving too much away, Arrival is one of the most important films of the year.

These violent delights have violent ends

If the current political climate isn’t telling, we live in the age of othering.

This idea is front and centre during the first season of one of the most revelatory HBO fictional television series this year – Westworld. The idea of a theme park where you can treat the other as you please is really a metaphor for society at the moment. The “meta-narrative” of the show poses this question: How can we look at someone who looks, feels and acts the same was as us and treat them inhumanely?

The series was created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy who have made equally interesting projects like Memento, Inception and Interstellar. The creative duo took the 1970s movie of the same name, and turned it into a mind bending look at human psychology and our need for empathy. It dared to suggest that suffering and understanding our narratives push us into self-awareness.

The ten episode first season of Westworld is about a park populated by androids who exist for the pleasure of the humans who visit the park and play an immersive game in an old west setting. The android “hosts” have all manner of abuse visited upon them in the name of gameplay. The humans who visit the park are allowed to live out their most base fantasies. As a result empathy, understanding and connection don’t enter the equation.

The series dares to suggest that if humans can’t recognise how they treat others and the torment they cause, should they be allowed to exist at all.

It is about breaking the cycle of the treatment of others. All of which reveals the most important first step in doing so, and what Westworld’s first season sought to so brilliantly to prove: Breaking the cycle of violence and attaining peace is impossible if one group is seen as less human than the other.

So like a lot of speculative science fiction, Westworld’s themes throw a mirror up to society. And it is damning what is reflected back to us.

Proceeding with courage

There are a lot of profound ideas to discuss after we watch Arrival, First Contact and Westworld. In turn we reflect on the ripple affect some of these ideas should and could have in society and our treatment of the ‘other’. And while a robot apocalypse won’t be on the horizon any time soon (hopefully), it is true that as Shakespeare wrote “these violent delights have violent ends.”

Should we also be asking ourselves these questions: Can we learn to proceed with caution and courage, approaching those we perceive as dangerous aliens, in the expectation of meaningful relationship? How can we build each other up through empathy and understanding? How might our communication with each other have the power to build and strengthen our empathy for and relationships with our neighbours?

These are all things that Jesus was really good at: sitting around a table with prostitutes and tax collectors, venturing into places and situations that others thought not worth their time and offering love and acceptance and grace in return.

I want to believe this is possible. I still have faith that conversation can lead to mutual understanding, compassion and even love, and that we can—through gracious correspondence that prioritizes listening—learn from our differences and become stronger together.

Let’s take those risks.

Adrian Drayton


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