The Root of Cruelty & Violence: Low Empathy

By Shlomo Maital

   At times, it just does not pay to watch the news or read the newspaper. The boundaries of human violence and cruelty to fellow humans keep getting pushed to more and more outrageous levels.  

     But why?   What is the root of this cruelty and violence?   Our Bible (Old Testament) says explicitly, “I [God] dwell within each of you”.   How can we harm other human beings in any way, when God himself resides in every human being?

       I found an answer in the January 2018 issue of National Geographic.[1] There is a part of our brain that is active when we empathize with others. Empathy means “I feel precisely as you feel”, as opposed to sympathy, which means “I am sorry you are feeling badly”.   If you have empathy for others, you cannot harm them, because when you do, you physically harm yourself and feel pain.

       Why have the empathy centers of our brains become clogged and decayed? I don’t know. It is deeply painful, for instance, when my own country Israel, which I love deeply, forcibly expels African migrants, when the Jewish people have suffered so much from such expulsions and worse. The empathy centers of Israeli political leaders have atrophied.

     What is the solution?   Let each of us look inward, deeply, and examine our own empathy centers. Here below is a short version of an EQ (empathy quotient) test. [2]  EQ I think is far more important for humanity than IQ. Indeed, some people with astronomical IQ have below-zero EQ. Alas. How do you score on EQ? Has our IQ gotten out of synch with our EQ?

       Perhaps the endlessly repeated terrifying images of violence have dulled our EQ and made it atrophy. Let each of us rebuild our empathy.   In our own lives, and in our own small ways, let us regain empathy toward others. At least, it’s a start.

  1. I can easily tell if someone else wants to enter a conversation.
  2. I really enjoy caring for other people.
  3. In a conversation, I tend to focus on my own thoughts rather than on what my listener might be thinking.
  4. I find it easy to put myself in somebody else’s shoes.
  5. I am good at predicting how someone will feel.
  6. I am quick to spot when someone in a group is feeling awkward or uncomfortable.
  7. Other people tell me I am good at understanding how they are feeling and what they are thinking.
  8. When I talk to people, I tend to talk about their experiences rather than my own.
  9. I get upset if I see people suffering on news programs.
  10. Friends usually talk to me about their problems as they say that I am very understanding.

[1] National Geographic. “Anatomy of Empathy”. Jan. 2018, pp. 128-131.

[2] S Baron-Cohen, S Wheelwright. The Empathy Quotient: An Investigation Of Adults With Asperger Syndrome Or High Functioning Autism, And Normal Sex Differences. 34(2): J Autism Dev Disord 163-75. 2004.

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