empathy to apathy

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Bystander Apathy

daya dissanayake

From all over the world, we hear about the apathy among human beings. The 'Good Samaritan' is an endangered species nearing extinction. The Bystander Apathy was what we heard after the brutal rape and murder of the young girl in Delhi, on December 16th, 2012, where no one who stopped at the scene offered to help, even to offer a piece of clothe to cover the cold naked bleeding body of the girl. It was on the night of March 13th, 1964, in Kew Gardens, Queens, New York, that a girl was knifed, raped and then killed, while her neighbours heard her screams just shut their doors and their ears. The list could go on and on.

We are today insensitised to violence because of all the inhuman cruelty we see and hear in the electronic and print media and in the films and novels, who exploit them to increase their ratings and circulation. When communications and advertising media, literature and films objectify women, this lack of empathy becomes very dangerous. The woman becomes a disposable commodity.

When we read a novel we should be reminded that we are human beings. Then we can empathize with the characters in the story, we are better able to relate to our fellow human beings and all living things. A recent study at the University of Buffalo has revealed that reading satisfies a deeply felt need for human connection because we not only feel like the characters we read or hear about but, psychologically speaking, become part of their world and derive emotional benefits from the experience. When the reading matter is all about violence we become violent too, we do not empathize with the victims, but with the violators, the murderers and rapists, and we get used to enjoy such violence, like the gladiatorial 'games', or till recently the Spanish bull fights.

Barak Obama during his 2008 presidential campaign used the term 'empathy deficit' which he saw in America. A survey by researchers at the University of Michigan found that college students today are 40 percent less empathetic than they were in 1979, with the steepest decline coming in the last 10 years. These students were not concerned about other people's misfortunes, however much they are constantly in touch with them. A Washington based Psychotherapist Douglas LaBier talks about EDD, Empathy Deficit Disorder. Those who suffer from EDD are unable to step outside themselves and tune into what other people experience. The inhuman ragging in our universities too could be due to this empathy deficit and the bystander apathy.

It is the changing times which created the need for a term like Empathy, according to Steven Pinker, it was first used by Vernon Lee in 1904 and by Edward Titchener in 1909.

The first step down the path of the deterioration of human values would have been when man learned to feign sympathy instead of empathy. Evolution and degeneration of man could be described as moving from Empathy to Sympathy to Apathy to end up with Antipathy.

We have packaged, ready made products claiming to be artistic creations, which can arouse a little sympathy, but the creation of a true artist, whether it be a painting, a poem, a short story or a novel is where we can empathize with what we see or read or hear. George Eliot has implied that art is capable of inducing one of the most profound aspects of empathy: the ability to sensitize us to the emotions of other people in ways that transcend the limits of our own experiences and perspectives.

Jeremy Rifkin is looking at the empathic evolution of the human race, reminding us that we are a fundamentally empathic species. He quotes Hegel, "happiness is the blank pages of history", because our recorded history is always about conflict and crisis, pain and suffering. This false impression is what made Thomas Hobbes say "the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short". Rifkin claims that empathy got pushed aside by historians and philosophers with a more bleak view of human nature.

More recent views on Empathy have been put forward by Ellen Dissanayake. She says "Most empathists held that bodily feelings were projected outward from the perceiver onto the art object. Current neurophysiological findings, however, suggest that the work of art writes itself on the perceiver's body: ....now we can understand that the arts affect at once our bodies, minds, and souls, which themselves are aspects - processing modules in the brain - of an individual that apprehends as one". And this is what Buddha explained 2600 years ago.

Global empathy is the need of the hour. Literature, art and music are probably the best way to revive empathy. Tania Singer, neuroscientist, Max Planck Institute, Berlin, wrote that the "ability to share others’ feelings ultimately results in a better understanding of the present and future mental states and actions of the people around us and possibly promotes prosocial behavior. .....empathy is also likely to render people less selfish because it allows the sharing of emotions and feelings with others and therefore motivates other-regarding behavior."

It is still not too late to reverse the process from apathy to empathy, before the bystanders too join the violence. Let us write novels, produce films, publish news showing the good side of the human beings, the good deeds we see everyday among us, or if we cannot find such topics, at least about the humane behaviour among the animals.

Let us write about the humane animals around us, if we can find only beastly humans.

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