Is empathy a globally endangered quality?

US President Donald Trump about to hug malevolent House Speaker Paul Ryan, after the House of Representatives approved ...
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US President Donald Trump about to hug malevolent House Speaker Paul Ryan, after the House of Representatives approved the American Healthcare Act, also called Trumpcare. It still requires Senate approval.

OPINION: Are we in danger of seeing the extinction of empathy in our lifetime?

It's a big question, and I should make clear I mean on a collective rather than an individual scale.

There will always be empathetic people. However, it has struck me of late that collectively - nationally, globally, corporately - if empathy was an animal it might well be considered an endangered species.

Imagine Sir David Attenborough's voice: "There's Empathy Emu, foraging for food. Unfortunately most of her young have been picked off by unscrupulous hunters and it's unclear if she and her mate, Ernie, will be able to keep the species going for much longer."

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Of course, lack of empathy is an accusation that could confidently have been levelled at governments, political parties and major corporations for centuries, possibly millennia.

Franco, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Mugabe, Martin Shkreli, just to pluck a smattering covering the last century out of the air, have not exactly been leaders renowned for the ability to "understand and share the feelings" of others.

It seems to me that, for the first time in my personal awareness, lack of empathy is becoming a dominant force. Perhaps some will feel it's really nothing new, and that I've obviously not been particularly aware up to this point, but I don't think the phenomenon is that easily explained away.

By the way, did you know Robert Mugabe, who's now 93, plans to run in Zimbabwe's presidential election next year?

That unpalatable morsel was an aside in an article on the BBC website in which a spokesman explained that on the numerous occasions Mugabe has been photographed apparently asleep in public, he has actually been "resting his eyes".

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That was due to a sensitivity to bright lights, he explained. Plainly, too much despotting will make you uncomfortable in the glare of the spotlight.

Unfortunately, the spokesman then drew possibly the most inappropriate parallel in recorded history, likening Mugabe's problem to that which afflicted Nelson Mandela as a result of his long incarceration on Robben Island, where he laboured in a limestone quarry. A shared condition, perhaps, but that might be the only thing the two had in common, because Mandela's political career after his release was marked by an astounding degree of empathy.

It's no exaggeration to say his grasp of the hopes and fears of the various political factions in South Africa, including the ruling white minority, was one of the major factors in enabling the country's transition to democracy to be completed relatively peacefully. Without it, the powder keg would almost certainly have ignited.

Strictly speaking, the opposite of empathy is apathy, "a lack of interest, enthusiasm or concern", and I certainly detect that on an increasing scale at a global level.

It screamed from the staged pictures, full of rich white men and led by the clean-cut but malevolent Paul Ryan, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, gleefully celebrating the successful negotiation of the first voting hurdle for Trumpcare.

That's the nickname for the new healthcare plan Republicans have devised to replace Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act. It's been extensively reported that the new plan will leave 24 million more Americans without health insurance. Well, you can understand why they were laughing, can't you?

Unfortunately, apathy is also clearly discernible in our own backyard, the most obvious example to me our Government's response thus far to our developing housing crisis. If there's not scope for a genuinely empathetic response when people are sleeping in cars, we have a problem.

Another stunning example was Gerry Brownlee, then Acting Civil Defence Minister, telling off a Kaikoura District farmer, some weeks after the massive earthquake there, who expressed frustration at the slow pace of the recovery effort.

He could have bitten his tongue, channelled another Gerry, the one with the Pacemakers, and told the farmer and his colleagues they'd "never walk alone".

Instead, his response included: "Sorry you're frustrated, but I'm pissed off that you took that attitude, quite frankly ..."

Yes, he was under pressure, and it was appropriate to explain what had been done, but his belligerent tone made Brownlee sound defensive and lacking in empathy for what locals were enduring. Never mind, we've taken him off that beat and made him Minister of Foreign Affairs instead. Sorted.

Personally, I think narcissism is a handy alternative antonym for empathy. That's clear in the persona of the self-absorbed US President Donald Trump, a man seemingly as bereft of historical insight as he is of self-awareness.

Given his business background, it's appropriate to equate empathy, and his lack of it – how else could he push such a plainly destructive health bill as though it's the greatest advance in collective health care ever dreamed up? - with emotional intelligence, a quality so sought after in top managers these days.

They're essentially the same thing by two different names and Trump's performance shows me that a lack of this quality leads to what I call "management by kneejerk reaction". Sometimes, I fancy I can almost detect the micro-management fatigue in the anonymous comments of White House staffers, charged with responding to each of his reactionary whims, to media. 

Thankfully, I think this management style has a limited lifespan, its inevitable downfall presaged by the gradual alienation of most adherents.

I came across a case this week of someone who said she was happy to stay in a job that didn't pay or stimulate her enough because she'd been treated with "grace and empathy". Not indefinitely, obviously, but it's an illustration of what an important quality empathy is.

Sadly, it seems to be under threat, at a time when we need it more than we ever have.

 

 - Stuff

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