One World, One Humanity: Promoting Empathy

  • 26 Sep 2015 10:00 AM
One World, One Humanity: Promoting Empathy
"This presentation seeks to promote empathy and understanding between groups in conflict. This is based in part on recent research conducted worldwide. Empathy is defined as: “the capacity to recognise emotions, thoughts and attitudes that are being experienced by others.” It should lead to greater understanding of others whether individuals or in groups. Two types of empathy are distinguished, cognitive empathy, and emotional empathy. The difference between the male and female gender are discussed in relation to empathy. The author asks: “Where is empathy in the current conflicts that exist worldwide?” Currently conflict exists between nations, religions and even within the same religion. Positive suggestions are made on how to reduce world tensions and to develop world harmony instead of current world disharmony."

One World, One Humanity: Introduction

I am honoured by the fact that you have asked me to speak to you on the subject close to my heart and hopefully yours as well. It will be my last presentation as Past President of the International Council of Psychologists with whom I have been a member for over 30 years. I very much hope that members of your organization IAAP and those who have come to the conference will join ICP as regular members remembering that our organization is for the benefit of mankind as well as for the academics and universities to which we belong.

What I will say will seem so obvious to everyone and yet it needs saying not once but many times. This is, that we are now, and in the future should be increasingly belonging to one World and one humanity. That which divides us by culture, nationality, religion or any other divisive thought must be viewed as less important than that which we all have in common. This being our humanity.

It is unfortunate that at this present time human beings in many parts of the World are in conflict and in some cases, long term and enduring bloody conflicts. We are psychologists and we can do many things other than throw up our hands in despair. We can mobilise our knowledge and wisdom to help those responsible for aggression and hostility to alter their thinking and behavior. This is another way of saying we are treating those in conflict via the well-known and respected method of cognitive behaviour therapy or CBT.

Promoting empathy and understanding between groups in conflict (recent research)

Acts of violence and destruction would never occur if the individual who carries out these acts had traits such as empathy and altruism. Empathy is defined as “the capacity to recognise emotions, thoughts and attitudes that are being experienced by others”. It is also the capacity to understand another person/ group’s point of view. For this to occur, one has to be able to place oneself in their shoes and to feel what they are feeling as a result of one’s likely actions.

Empathy precedes being able to feel sympathy or compassion. Empathy comes from, and is equivalent to, the German word “einfuhlungsvermogen”. That is, ‘feeling into another person or group’. Its origin is Greek “empatheia”. The famous psychologist in 1909, Edward B. Titchener translated the German equivalent into the English language as “empathy”. In seeking to improve the World and Humanity, empathy should be considered the crucial element. If it is understood as a concept and acted upon at all levels it will prevent impending conflicts. In this way many conflicts would never occur between individuals or between groups.

Two types of empathy have been defined: emotional and cognitive empathy.

Emotional empathy or affective empathy is the response of one person or group reacting appropriately to another person, or one group responding appropriately to another group (Rogers et al., 2007). This is based on emotional contagion (Shamay-Tsoory et al., 2009).

Cognitive empathy is the capacity to identify with another’s mental state (Rogers et al., 2007). It is often considered to be similar to the “theory of mind” (Rogers et al, 2007). This does not normally occur until approximately the age of 4 in children (Wimmer & Perner, 1983).

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) has been used to identify the anatomy of empathy Keysers & Gazzola, 2009; Decety & Moriguchi, 2007). There are actually neuro-underpinnings to the feelings and display of empathy (Preston & de Wall, 2002).

Those suffering from Asperger Syndrome, borderline personality disorders, psychopathy, narcissistic personality disorders, schizophrenia, depersonalization, bipolar or conduct disorders in many cases are likely to be individuals lacking in empathy (Decety et al., 2008). It is almost certain that many terrorists, and some national leaders included, suffer from a lack of empathy making them likely to be, or to encourage others, to carry out anti-humanitarian acts.

This is not to say that all who commit acts against other human beings are mentally ill. Those suffering from a psychopathic or schizoid personality disorder often appear ‘normal’ individuals. They are often good to their own families and neighbours and yet they are capable of the most callous acts of cruelty towards outsiders who are other members of society, cultures or religions. In carrying out such acts of callousness they feel no conscience about what they do (APA, 2000).

Research indicates that there are sex or gender differences in the capacity of individuals being able to show empathy. Males in general have less capacity for empathy than females (Baron-Cohen, 2005; Eisenberg & Fabes, 1990). This could explain why males also in general manifest more aggression and psychopathy than females (Tunstall et al., 2003). The unwillingness to be able to recognise or identify with the feelings of others is typical of the narcissistic personality disorder and is clearly associated with limited or lack of empathy (APA, 2000).

Conduct disorders in childhood, adolescence and adulthood, also frequently lead to limited empathy, or the inability or unwillingness, to view things from another person’s point of view. This has been attributed or associated to the activation of the amygdala and the ventral striatum reducing the capacity for moral reasoning (Decety et al., 2008).

Where is empathy in the current conflicts that exist?

At present the conflicts in Syria, Israel and Palestine, and in many other areas of the World would appear to be beyond anyone to solve to everyone’s satisfaction. Different nations and religions can be influenced by adopting humanitarian concepts and this is the direction in which we should aim.

This consists of elements we all share or have in common. These common elements are: showing sincere concern if not love for others, with whom we share this planet. This is despite the fact that there are differences between us based on religion, nationality, and culture. Incidentally, sincere concern for others is an aspect which is shared by virtually all the major World religions.

This is often forgotten as humans seem to over-emphasise the differences between themselves rather than what they have in common.

If all major religions share such ideals and views, then why is there so much enmity between various factions? This is a puzzle we must solve as psychologists, sooner rather than later. Every life that is lost, any wound that is inflicted, should be viewed as harming every caring person in the World.

This belief unfortunately, is not shared by all members of humanity. Hence the bloodshed worldwide continues unabated. Can anything be done by members of our and other professions to reverse this destructive pattern based on defective attitudes and destructive behavior?

How for example, is it best to deal with terrorists who do not value the life of others or indeed their own lives? These individuals are undoubtedly influenced by fanatical elements that encourage the setting off of bombs, even within Mosques, as happened in Syria recently. Ideas that encourage such behaviour need to be counteracted by every individual.

The madness and the depravity of some individuals is difficult to understand and even more difficult to counteract. The behaviour is based for example on the fanatical beliefs that it is acceptable to kill Shiite Muslims if you are Suni and vice versa. It is based on the belief to kill a Jew, a Christian, or a Palestinian is acceptable. But does this make any sense at all in the long term?

This is despite what is written in the Koran and the Old and New Testament Bible which are followed by Christians, Jews and Muslims. Both believe in the “sanctity of life”, this should include other people’s lives as well as their own.

Although what follows is on the whole hopeful, and even optimistic about the future the current psychologist is not unaware or naïve about the dangers that threaten humans worldwide due to terrorism.

Professor Sarwono, in Indonesia, and I in the UK have carried out research with similar results and drawn similar conclusions about the problem of terrorism and how best to deal with this problem. Many terrorist have been influenced by a variety of sources, and fanatics who preach hatred, who use them as victims of self-destruction and of course the destruction of other innocent individuals.

Those termed terrorists do not regard themselves as such but rather view themselves as patriots and even heroes despite the fact that they have a murderous and destructive approach to mankind.

Such individuals become fanatical and are commonly termed “extremists”. Such individuals need to be apprehended, as should those who influence them, and incarcerated and punished while at the same time efforts are made to seek to redeem them through positive influences.

Professor Sarwono has already carried out such work in Indonesia by using former terrorists who have been rehabilitated to help others who are terrorists to change their views. This is a programme I applaud. Once such views have been changed, these individuals can once more be an asset to society in seeking to prevent further acts of violence and terrorism.

Both Professor Sarwono and I have found that many individuals who have perpetrated acts of terrorism are frequently innocent victims of fanatical zealots and their influence. Some I am sure can be rehabilitated, but others can never be rehabilitated and may need to be incarcerated for a lifetime to prevent them from becoming a further threat to society.

It should be said that the predominant members of society, any society and any religion, are on the whole law abiding, with empathy towards their fellow man. It is important however, not to be unaware of those who are the opposite, seeking the destruction of others even at the expense of themselves, but giving their lives for a cause which cannot ever win in the end due to violence being perpetrated on others.

Terrorists should ask themselves such questions as: What value has been attained through the Bali bombing and other acts of terrorism? The answer is none but it has been at the cost of many human beings who are innocent members of our world and society. The result as always is hatred and retaliation ‘ad infinitum’.

Most humans realise the folly of believing that our fellow man should be destroyed because in some way they are different from ourselves. There are, however, many humans who are somehow vulnerable, or susceptible, or suggestible, and influenced by charismatic leaders who encourage acts of violence to be perpetrated against often innocent and peace-loving members of society.

It is important that we as academics and practitioners encourage the acceptance of others who have different views but share a common element of being human. We should encourage tolerance and acceptance of other opinions providing these opinions are not based on hatred, vengeance, or retribution and violence. It is my hope, and I believe the hope of others, that differences between us should not become the source of antagonism.

The promoting of empathy and the developing of positive behaviour begins with parents rearing their children and inculcating positive behaviour. It continues with school educating the young to believe and act in accordance with the fact that all humans are valued. The churches and mosques need to continue this process of encouraging, tolerance and caring for others, regardless of differences in religious beliefs.

Every human being has a right to exist in peace and harmony. The same can be said for every nation, culture and religion. This must be recognised as a “categorical imperative” as stated by the famous philosopher Emmanuel Kant.

All religions should abide by this. A good example with which the World is currently faced is the creation of the state of Palestine to live alongside in peace with Israel. The main issue in fact should be the possibility of Palestine becoming one nation, because each part has much to give to the other. This is despite the differences in religion and other factors.

Currently Israel is not recognised by many Muslim countries. Does it make sense to continue such a policy when Palestine is likely to be recognised as a State but Israel still ignored and not to have the right to be recognised as a State?!

As I celebrate my good fortune of having reached the old age of 86, I feel more and more hope and optimism for the future of mankind. I hope you share this view with me. We can and will make a difference by working towards one World in harmony; one Humanity united in the belief that we now and in the future can create a better World. This requires courage. It requires vision.

Let us truly put it into action through example and our teachings. This I hope to do in whatever time I have left in my life. I hope you will also.

By Ludwig F. Lowenstein Ph.D

Southern England Psychological Services, Allington Manor, Allington Lane, Fair Oak, Eastleigh, Hampshire, SO50 7DE.


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