Let’s Make Empathy Great Again!

Upon entering a club, what is it that you see? Hold on. We don’t usually start with seeing; we start with hearing. Alright. So you enter to a cacophony of sounds, but perhaps a strident voice booms above all, encircling the crowd like the rotating lights. What an extrovert, you mumble to yourself, hogging attention as usual. As your eyes begin to acclimatize, you could make out a mass of long-haired outlines with arms all over and bodies twisting about hopelessly. That’s what they say about girls these days.

You squirm past them in annoyance. Past the crowd, faces finally start to take shape. A group of five is gathered at a long table drinking alcohol… oh, there is a glass of orange juice. What a spoilsport. You look closer and see that the chap is silent while the rest are happily conversing in heterosexual pairs. Not getting a girl anytime soon, that loner! Then your eyes shift behind them and you raise a hand. The world is messed up, but I don’t care because I have the best company, ever!

Stepping Back From Judgments

Judgments come to us naturally. They help us to navigate the world – fast-moving and increasingly dense – efficiently. Over time, we construct a coherent sense of reality that satisfies our curiosity. Yet a neutral process never stays neutral. We distort reality just as reality distorts us. And if we become too attached to our snap judgments, we unknowingly succumb our agency to the assumptions we have accrued from our immediate cliques or by political designs.

Who says a highly sociable individual is certainly an extrovert? Much of the world conditions us to strive for extrovert ideals, so it is highly plausible that introverts can behave like extroverts in social settings. But given limited information, it is okay to rely on patterns of association, like sociability with extroversion. The subsequent condemnation of “hogging attention” is more problematic though. Introversion has become a fad these days, and it is all too easy to inflict payback on extroverts who should not be blamed for the norms of the past and even the present.

What about drunk girls dancing their nights away with abandon? With snap judgments, we cannot help but lean on information which activate prevailing stereotypes. ‘Party girls’ is an easy one to access, because it involves a very connotative setting and a sharp contrast with conventional ideals of feminine restraint. Such stereotypes easily escalate into character misjudgments swayed by one’s ideals. Try a more distanced view. Perhaps clubs provide a refuge from reality, where one can explore alternative ways of being. Perhaps getting drunk is necessary to suspend anxieties of constantly being judged by a harsh world. Perhaps urban life generates a loneliness in all that needs to be assuaged, one way or another.

What about guys who shy from alcohol? Without knowing who they are, we may instantly perceive a shy, skinny, young and awkward male yet to be exposed to the vicissitudes of life. This stereotype can lend itself to rather divergent assessments. On one hand, such guys are “not masculine enough” and in need of socialization. On another hand, such guys can seem appealing to some precisely because they buck dominant forms of masculinity. Perhaps drinking alcohol (or not) is indeed associated with one’s personality and values. But if they are not definitive, are we able to step back from our preconceptions when challenged?

The Mess “Out There”

Why are you talking about all these… I don’t even know them and I don’t care! Fair enough, but only if your hurried judgments have no consequences. Have they not? Perhaps not enough to change the world, but certainly enough to affect your cliques. Even if you regard your clique as the finest, it is still a chamber. It echoes. It takes a conscientious and sensitive attitude to alter the echoes without bursting yourself out of the chamber. And cliques do not exist in isolation; they form crowds that align with, against and intersect each other. Together they make a society, ever in volatile compromise.

If you think the world is messed up, ask yourself: Why? What is it that you see, or hear, that annoys you? Is it the ignorance of those who exclaim their ignorance? Or is it the intellectualism of those who dismiss the concerns of common folks? Is it the irrationality of unthinking crowds? Or is it the cold rationality of so-called experts? Is it the conflicting noise that gets to you? Or is it the enduring silence on the things that matter?

If you think the world is messed up, ask yourself: What makes you different? Is it your knowledge of the limits of your knowledge? Or is it your conviction in sharing knowledge? Is it your participation in social causes? Or is it your distancing from human entanglements? Is it your tolerance of contradictory opinions? Or is it your focus on deeper but unasked questions?

I don’t think the world – of human beings – is messed up. Maybe a tiny, destructive minority is, but they may be messed up by their circumstances. All of us are to varying extents bound by circumstances, but most circumstances are not terminal. Most of us have the capacity to show empathy and to change our minds. Most of us can be reasonable. But because society does not reward reasonableness, and sometimes punishes it, we think less and judge more. It is a way to cope, even thrive.

I do think we ought to try harder, to be reasonable beings.

Trying Times

I neither drink nor club. By conventional wisdom, I am not qualified to comment on drinkers and clubbers. Perhaps except the part on the shy, skinny, young and awkward male. I don’t disagree. That’s why I like to use “perhaps”; I venture not facts but possibilities. You may ask, what’s the point of making statements without evidence? Yet is evidence ever definitive? No amount of experience, credential, or statistical data will help you decide what exactly a particular person in passing wants or thinks. My challenge is: Can you step back from your snap judgments when the stakes – especially your stakes – are high?

No one is an expert in everything. That’s normal. No matter. Don’t give up. Try where it matters. Try to at least be an expert in your own life. Try to know yourself better. Try to know your society better. Try to find your chains. Try to see others’ chains. If enough people are willing to try, we can form a party where sensible people can find not only refuge, but also more space for reflection. We may be drawn to certain personalities and ideas over others, but we should hold in mind and heart that what we like does not make it right, so that what we lack can come into sight.

Welcome to the new club in town! Dress in smart casual; anything but your birth-day gown! You can pick booze or orange juice. You can speak but do listen. Please spread the word and come often! Let’s dance in the party of inclusion. Let’s groove to the cacophony of obligations. Let’s find comfort in our shared problems. Let’s apply our imaginations. Twist your bodies. Fix your brollies. You have nothing to lose but your chains. You have everything to gain if it rains.

Stop whining. It’s worth a shot. Let’s make empathy great again.

First drafted in Jun 2017