Empathy and dyspathy in action

Conflict transformation project, Kenya
Conflict transformation project, Kenya

A peace dormitory for boys from two tribes

As the analysis stage of my research project comes to a close, I am working out how to summarise all that I have found out. Here’s one attempt. More to follow.

We live our lives in close proximity to other people; even from far away, other people impinge on our own lives. Like it or not, we live interconnected lives. But we have a choice as to what kind of connection we make with others. And how far we stretch out to include others in our circle of understanding. Empathy is about how we make those connections with others, about the choices we make as to where connection stops or where we break connection, about how deeply we allow ourselves to be drawn into other people’s lives.

In the course of my research, I have met people with powers of empathy that amaze me. Two in particular: Jo Berry and Evans Onyiego. Jo’s story is described in my book (and soon in her own). She lost her father in an IRA bombing in 1984. He was a government minister in Maragaret Thatcher’s cabinet, and this made him a political target for the IRA. Jo’s response was not revenge but to try to understand; to undertake a journey into the world of Patrick Magee, the then-IRA operative who planted the bomb, trying to make sense of his personal and cultural history so that she could understand that how it happened that Patrick Magee acted as he did. Most people block off even the possibility of this level of empathy; she persisted.

Evans’ story is one I have just started to find out about in a recent visit to Kenya to see peace-building projects in the northern Rift Valley. Evans leads a team who have stepped in to halt and prevent conflict among three tribes of pastoralists: Samburu, Pokot and Turkana. Sometimes facing hundreds of men armed with guns, he has found ways to convince angry people that violence is not the best answer. He paints them pictures — both of the horrors that will follow if they insist on revenge by shooting, and of alternative, more comfortable lives that are open to them if they leave their guns and find ways to get on with their neighbors. He persuades them into new empathy, but he also displays astonishing empathy with the people he works with. He tells of visiting a young man in prison for killing a man from another tribe, of letting the young man know about the sadness of the victim’s widow and her hungry children, and about his own wife and how she felt. He watched the young man weep over what he had done and found ways to help him. Evans’ talent is to notice opportunities for changing attitudes and actions, and to convince people of the worth of alternatives to violence. His interventions allow empathy to be rebuilt between people who have disconnected.

The research has also revealed the many ways in which disconnection or disabling of empathy is managed, both by ‘ordinary’ people and by those in power. Such was the evidence of our capacity to avoid empathy that I decided it should have its own name: dyspathy. By naming the resisting of empathy, I hope to open it up to critical reflection and to being disarmed. The neuroscience evidence of how our brains do the connecting with others shows automatic mirroring and simulation processes that tune us in to what someone else is feeling or doing; we understand others through our own embodied experience. The same experiences can prompt dyspathy. Let me share some instances of dyspathy from my data.

There’s the lumping together of individuals into groups, where they are ‘all the same, those people’: the threatening refugees and asylum seekers, the mad Muslim terrorists, the war-mongering Americans, the dangerous, drug-taking, young people. All these appear in people’s talk, and also in their decisions and actions, sometimes with tragic outcomes. Lumping allows dehumanization, the reducing of people to animals or objects, that in turn permits violence against them.

There’s the distancing of people that renders them ‘no concern of mine’, even though they may be suffering and in need of help. And if the people who are suffering also live far away, their plight becomes even easier to ignore, as dyspathy is buoyed up by moral reasoning and the support of like-minded people.

There’s the blocking, the barriers put up to keep us separated from those we find threatening. If other people evoke fear, then I will feel safer behind my security gates and the grilles on my windows. Never mind that the result is that my freedom of movement is restricted, or if I imprison myself in my fear while the threat remains free to wander the streets.

But let’s turn a more empathic gaze on our dyspathic tendencies. Time and again people describe how uncertainty produces fear and a desire to protect what matters most to them: self, family, home. Dyspathy comes from that fear — as lumping, distancing or blocking of other people who contribute to the uncertainty. Realizing this, we can more appreciate the small ways in which empathy survives despite uncertainty: resilient friendships across social groups that refuse to lump and distance; historical parallels evoked to show that lumping is not right, people are not all the same — there’s always the rotten apple (onion, potato) but there are also always some good people; explanations for inexplicable behavior that make no logical sense but, by splitting a group, allow some empathy to persist — ‘they’re all crazy/scary/wrong, but you’re ok’.  And a key force against dyspathy: leaders who help avoid immediate responses that spring from anger and fear, and who, in the most risky of situations, have the courage to remind us of alternative decisions and actions and help us find the energy to take them.

Empathy is embodied, automatic, but fragile. Dyspathy is a natural response to uncertainty. Moral leadership and personal moral responsibility support people in rebalancing empathy-dyspathy dynamics and finding positive ways of living with uncertainty.

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