Saturday, September 15, 2012

Idea of a universal solvent

Why people at times behave the most evil way, not counting others as humans but as mere object which can be tossed around like lifeless entities? Oblivious of grievous injury they cause to others, such persons remain unconcerned about any physical and emotional damage thus inflicted. Conditioned by what Prof. Simon Baron-Cohen calls ‘empathy erosion’, such people lack ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling. In simple terms, the language we can use to describe such a trait would be totally self-focused. Recent research now suggests that people’s position on the empathy spectrum can be affected by both genes and the environment that they live in.

Using real-life cases, Baron-Cohen talks us through a variety of conditions in which the ability to empathize is reduced, leading to the possibility of a violent behavior. In saying so, it is being sympathetically suggested that such so-called ‘evildoers’ are not necessarily irredeemable. This seems an important insight, given the fact that with ‘empathy’ we have a resource to resolve conflict, increase community cohesion and dissolve another person’s pain. Assessing empathy mechanism on both genetic and psychiatric scales, Baron-Cohen makes a compelling argument: ‘unless empathy is employed across conflicting situations across the world, from Washington to Baghdad, more lives are and will be lost’.

The sooner the unempathic acts are erased the better it is because the footprints of such acts can stay longer than desired. Back in 1542, Martin Luther wrote a pamphlet entitled On the Jews and their lies; wherein he had advocated (to the Christians) that synagogues should be burned and Jewish homes should be destroyed. Four hundred years later, the young Adolf Hitler quoted Martin Luther in Mein Kampf to give his own Nazi racist views some respectability, thereby ending the lives of 6 million Jews in the concentration camps. And in the absence of empathy, Hitler was bereft of any guilt for his dastardly actions.

Empathy, concludes Baron-Cohen, is like a universal solvent. From interpersonal problems to international conflicts and from family disputes to political deadlocks, any problem immersed in empathy becomes soluble. Since it is secular in nature, empathy, unlike religion, cannot oppress anyone. If such be it powers, why is empathy missing from most universal agendas?  Read this immensely compellingly book to find out!....Link

Zero Degrees of Empathy
by Simon Baron-Cohen
Penguin Books, UK
193 pages, UK£ 9.99.

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