Empathy literally means the capacity to recognize the emotions being experienced by another sentient being.
It is almost always bound up with sympathy and compassion. Empathy as we normally think of it is a good thing, a liberal thing, a Buddhist thing, a kindly thing. But is that a good thing?
When I first read William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience in my late teens, I adored the poems and illustrations of the Songs of Innocence and largely disliked or ignored the Songs of Experience. I liked the joy, innocence, and passion of the Songs of Innocence but not the sober truths of the Songs of Experience.
Culturally, as far as I can tell, America is infatuated with the innocence of empathy, but not the sober truths that should go hand in hand with it.
If all people were nice and kind and never did bad things, it would be good to be innocent about empathy. But not all people are good. Indeed, most of us are only good sometimes and some of us are really bad a lot of the time.
Do you have the capacity to recognize the emotions being experienced by a person intent on doing harm? Doesn’t our current sense of what empathy entails leave out empathy’s evil twin, the bad emotions and intentions of other sentient beings?
I don’t know if it is still true today, but Japanese tourists visiting the USA used to get mugged and raped at levels well above their percentage of the population. The reason was, and maybe still is, they were too innocent and could not perceive the evil intent of their new “friend” or the cool dude asking them for the time.
This happened because Japan has less violent crime than the USA and because Japanese tourists were not able to imagine or read American situational exchanges. And this shows that empathy for evil is based both on expectation and culture, which are close in nature.
The Buddha said that we can only really know another human being after long association. Even he cautioned about being innocent and empathizing only with the good we see in others while failing to recognize the bad.
Something 99% of American voters do not understand. Congress doesn’t actually write legislation. The last item of legislation written by congress was sometime around the mid 1990’s. Modern legislation is sub-contracted to a segment of operations in DC known as K-Street. That’s where the lobbyists reside.
Lobbyists write the laws; congress sells the laws; lobbyists then pay congress commissions for passing their laws. That’s the modern legislative business in DC.
CTH often describes the system with the phrase: “There are Trillions at Stake.” The process of creating legislation is behind that phrase. DC politics is not quite based on the ideas that frame most voter’s reference points.
With people taking notice of DC politics for the first time; and with people not as familiar with the purpose of DC politics; perhaps it is valuable to provide clarity.
Most people think when they vote for a federal politician -a House or Senate representative- they are voting for a person who will go to Washington DC and write or enact legislation. This is the old-fashioned “schoolhouse rock” perspective based on decades past. There is not a single person in congress writing legislation or laws.
In modern politics not a single member of the House of Representatives or Senator writes a law, or puts pen to paper to write out a legislative construct. This simply doesn’t happen.
Over the past several decades a system of constructing legislation has taken over Washington DC that more resembles a business operation than a legislative body. Here’s how it works right now.
Bass discusses the very severe economic ramifications of the Wuhan virus in China, USA, Hong Kong, and rest of world. He believes the West’s relationship with China is “intractable” and cannot be fixed. If you have any interest in this subject, don’t miss this. Bass provides many insights you will not find elsewhere.
Stated more clearly: Culture is nothing more than the context of the languages we speak.
In this sense culture defines our words and phrases; and in this sense, our psychologies.
This means that if you think or feel something, you probably can find a way to speak about it unless you are trapped within the context of your language.
For example, just think of anything you are afraid or embarrassed to talk about.
For some of those topics, you may have a friend (or stranger) with whom you are able to speak. Very traumatic experiences can be exceptionally difficult to speak about because they tend to be unique or uniquely horrific; so normal language in almost all contexts won’t get you there. You will feel inhibited, tongue-tied, embarrassed, afraid, timid, mute, isolated.
Traumatic experiences are an extreme example of how culture/context is not able to overlay all of our experiences. This is a core reason we turn to professional listeners—therapists, clergy, etc—to deal with trauma, though often we are even afraid of them.
Artists also provide us with unique experiences set in unique contexts. If well-done, or more importantly well-publicized, art may change the culture/context for many speakers. In this area, goodness lives alongside propaganda and hype. Many speakers feed the frenzy and feed on it.
In Buddhism, speech is a vessel of delusion as well as enlightenment. Buddhism provides an excellent context for speech because it fully recognizes the meta-contexts of impermanence, emptiness, ignorance, delusion, and suffering.
If you have experienced trauma, as we all have (it’s relative), you are in a good place to understand that traumas can be very small yet agonizing. And they can repeat often, causing constant suffering, sleeplessness, helplessness.
If we can see that traumas, both small and large, are outliers from whatever culture we are in, then we can also see that the way forward is to make our culture into something that can speak about them.
When culture is as small as one person—you alone—you can be free in many ways but also will get stuck on your traumas. With no way to speak about them with others, they will distort your thinking, carry weight they should not have. Disturb everything you do.
When culture is as large as two people, great freedom is possible. Two people just need to realize this. If they do, it’s a small step to realize that profound cooperation solves their cultural “prisoners’ dilemma” better any other solution.
I cannot escape my trauma if I lie to you because my context will instantly become inauthentic, stultified fully as badly as my trauma always has been. So, I won’t do that. And you, my partner, are as smart as me so you won’t either.
Cultures are contexts for languages because cultures have rules. A two-person culture also needs rules. Best to figure most of them out for yourselves but also best to start with some very important basics. And these are: meta-cognitive rules that allow for accurate meta-communication.
Here is a set of rules that can start you off on a new way to communicate: How to do FIML.
Normal socially-defined communication—business, school, professional, etc.—operates within known limits and terminologies. Skill is largely defined as understanding how to use the system without exceeding its limits, how to play the game.
Many other forms of communication must be imagined. That is, I have to imagine what you mean and you have to imagine what I mean.
In many cases of this type I will imagine that you are normal to the extent that I am able to imagine what normal is. And I will imagine that you imagine me to be normal. As I imagine you I will probably assume that your sense of what is normal is more or less the same as mine. This is probably what the central part of the bell curve of imagined communication looks like. People in this group are capable of imagining and cleaving to normal communication standards. If you reciprocate, we will probably get along fine.
If my imagination is better than normal, I will be able to imagine more than the normal person or given to imagining more. If this is the case, I will tend to want to find a way to communicate more than the norm to you. If you reciprocate, we might do well communicating. If you don’t, I might appear eccentric to you or distracted.
If my imagination is worse than normal, I will have trouble imagining or understanding normal communication. I won’t have a good sense of the cartoons we are required to make of each other and will probably appear awkward or scatterbrained to most people. If you reciprocate, we might do well communicating and find comfort in each other.
Normal communication, even when imagined, is based on something like cartoons. I see myself as a cartoon acting in relation to the cartoon I imagine for you. If my cartoon fits you well enough that you like it and if your cartoon of me fits well enough that I like it, we have a good chance of becoming friends.
A great deal of normal imagined communication is cartoon-like, and being normal, will take the bulk of its cartoons from mass media—movies, TV, radio, and, to a lesser extent today, books and other art forms.
People still read and learn from books and art, but normal communication has come to rely heavily on the powerful cartoons of mass media.
The big problem with our systems of imagined communication is they are highly idiosyncratic, messy, and ambiguous. We have to spend a lot of time fixing problems and explaining what we really mean.
It’s good to have idiosyncratic communication, but we have to find ways to understand each other on those terms.
Both emotions and facial expressions are ancient instincts.
Human language and cognition have grown well-beyond ancient instincts. Grown beyond but also still affected by.
We have become more complex.
Today, we not only read instincts, we also read instincts into other people’s cognition through what they say, how they say it, how it sounds, how their faces move.
Which micro-expression is the right one?
The truth is we don’t know. Our readings of facial expressions in real-time, real-world situations are often wrong, often tragically.
Our cognition has advanced beyond our instincts but generally speaking it has not advanced far enough for us to generally recognize this fact.
Cultures and social groups deal with the ambiguity of facial expressions by being formal, wearing masks, emphasizing “face” or “saving face,” promoting respect or strong egos that can sell themselves through assertion of meaning, Botox, makeup, boobs, etc.
I think it is arguable that many/most/all people take on and use religion or philosophy in order to provide themselves with a generalizable set of emotions and facial expressions that can be employed in many situations. In this we can see how the architecture of our cognition (our philosophy/religion) is connected to our emotions and facial expressions.
Obviously, our reading of other people’s faces and emotions is not always wrong. If it were we wouldn’t do it at all. But our readings are wrong often enough that tragic mistakes are frequently made.
It is a pity that these truths are not more widely recognized. Browse almost any psychological forum and you will find many comments concerning the anguish people feel at having a condition that is widely misunderstood or misread.
At least they know what is going on.
This morning I saw this article: NEVER trust a person’s face: Scientists say it is ‘completely baloney’ that you can read people’s emotions from their expressions.
And that led me to search for this paper: Emotional Expressions Reconsidered: Challenges to Inferring Emotion From Human Facial Movements.
I am sure most, if not all, psychologists recognize the basic problem of our poor abilities at reading emotions, tone of voice, gesture, and even what we mean at all when we speak and act.
Does anyone know what to do about it?