Go on then, put yourself in someone else's shoes

It’s election time. And all I can think of are people who like people who they (think) they are like.

There are people who like politicians, writers, artists, actors, sportspersons that they look up to, because the latter provide them some pleasure, joy, purpose. Some of these people are even Indian White supremacists, who genuinely believe that the pavements would be smoother under British governance.

Then there are the same people who don’t like people who they are not like. Or rather, people who are not like them. The reason for their antipathy could be a difference in faith, dietary habits, regional residency, way he or she behaves in a gathering, or the way one dresses. But this kind of antipathy, even detestation, can be a defining feature of such a person.

Politicians, deft in psychology, play both these cards of relatability and unakin-ness.

The fact that one can hold one’s own ‘territory’ without having to invade another person’s space, is something that is losing popular appeal. It starts innocuously enough. If I like, say, punk rock and you write it off as ‘three-chord noise’, you cluck your teeth and roll your eyes to suggest I have bad taste. If you aren’t bowled over by the prime minister, then I could get riled up enough to think that you are rather ‘anti-national’ (as if being anti-national is as horrible as, say, being cruel to animals).

Which is where empathy – and the lack of it – enters the picture. The ability to take on another’s perspective to understand and feel others’ experiences – to be in another person’s shoes – is something that is not taught to us. Not in school, not at home, except by example. Perhaps, understanding, without necessarily agreeing with another (person’s) view or position, can be on the ‘moral science’ syllabus in schools. A child’s software comes without being ‘loaded’ with -isms. Notions of differentiations on gender, caste, racial, regional, ideological lines are grafted into them over time by adults who were themselves infused into these notional differences. In psychology, ‘theory of mind’ includes the knowledge that other people’s beliefs, desires, thoughts and intentions could be different from yours. The particular reasons for you disliking Karan Johar movies, or strangely pointless quasi-philosophical Sunday columns, could be the very same particular reasons for someone else actually liking Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani, or this thing that you’re reading right now.

So, to find it very hard to accept that some folks may support Israel in its current war against Palestinians, means you need to empathise – not necessarily agree – with these people. There are people in this country who dislike, say, Muslims simply because they are not Hindus. It is important for rational, kind people to try and figure out why anti-Muslimists dislike Muslims, before trying to demolish their case.

But as cognitive science scholar Fritz Alwin Breithaupt writes in his 2017 book, Die dunklen Seiten der Empathie (The Dark Sides of Empathy), ‘Sometimes we commit atrocities not out of a failure of empathy, but rather as a direct consequence of successful, even overly successful, empathy.’ After Jan-Erik Olsson released four hostages during a failed bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden, not only did none of the hostages testify against him, but they actually raised money for his defence. This kind of empathy shown by victims towards their captor became known as ‘Stockholm syndrome’, something that has examples in cases as diverse as the way many Indians reacted to the trauma of demonetisation.

As Breithaupt writes – in the context of the Stockholm hostages, not the victims of demonetisation – ‘[They] saw the world through the eyes of the hostage-takers and adopted their imagined self-interest – a classic scenario of empathy.

But it isn’t so much the excess of ‘bad empathy’ as much as the shortage of ‘good empathy’ that blinds human kindness, and behaviour that rewards it. Let the act of imagining what we’re not, along with instilling what we are, be taught to us from a tender, formative, informative age.


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