a man talking to an elderly man sitting on a wheelchair

Thoughts on Empathy

Reading the article, ‘In an age where the heart rules the head, here’s a case against empathy’, what Ms. Hinsliff characterizes as ‘empathy’ is actually ‘sympathy’. When we sympathize, we identify with the feelings of another because we have experienced similar feelings. It is easy to sympathize. She describes empathy as ‘gooey emoting’. It is the farthest thing from that. Empathy is a sophisticated emotional process requiring one to put oneself into another person’s shoes and sometimes very uncomfortable shoes at that. It requires effort and emotional intelligence engaging both the cognitive and emotional centers of the brain. It is closer to what psychologist Paul Bloom describes as ‘social intelligence’ or ‘rational compassion’ where one ‘attempts to understand (what) other people feel… even when the feeling is completely alien to you’. Empathy requires much more effort than sympathy because it requires we leave the comfort zone of our feelings and perspectives to understand (not necessarily agree with) those of others.

This is what is missing from our public discourse today – we are talking to ourselves (and others like us). We often don’t do make the effort to empathize or understand those whose experiences and feelings are very different from ours. As Hinsliff says, ‘feelings are fickle’. That is why we need to think and analyze our feelings if we want to better understand ourselves and others. Perhaps if we did this more often we could begin to bridge some of the social and political rifts that continue to divide us.

Gaby Hinsliff, the Guardian UK, 18 February 2017

Paul Bloom:  Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion



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