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The Road to Hell is Paved With Selective Empathy

I’ve been struck over these last few days by how few perspectives are offered in our mass media and social media that truly empathize with both Israelis and Palestinians.

If we don’t grieve for the hundreds of innocent people and children horrifically murdered by Hamas terrorists, we are in danger of losing our humanity. If we don’t grieve for the hundreds of innocent people and children who have been horrifically murdered as 6000 Israeli bombs fell on their homes in a few days, we are in danger of losing our humanity.

If we want to be intelligent and constructive sources of wisdom and peace, we need to be able to empathize with both sides.

The problem is selective empathy. Many people feel a powerful connection and intense emotion, grief and anger connected with one side’s victims and relatively little with the other side’s.

This is not an accident. The focus of the politics and propaganda of conflict is to create selective empathy with some victims in order to demonize the enemy, motivate revenge, and justify war. Empathy with multiple sides engages our other faculties, our fairmindedness and reason and creativity, to search for solutions. But empathy with one side keeps us stuck on an emotive conveyor belt that leads from shock through blame to the seductive elation of outrage and a cornucopia of cognitive biases and distortions that aim at one end - punishment of the evil-doers.

Humanity has been ripped apart for almost our entire history by these dynamics. Ripped apart by tribe, creed, religion, ethnicity, nationality, ideology, and the close and caring communities that these things create to drive our selective empathy.

I think the answer to this bane of our existence is, simply, humanity. We need to be open to all people, to listen to all people, to be willing to see the world through any person’s eyes, and do our best to walk a mile in their shoes. To have empathy, rather than selective empathy.

One key to this appears to be identity. If we think of ourselves first and foremost as a member of a tribe, then we will naturally have selective empathy for our fellow tribespeople. If we want to hack our brains’ powerful and natural empathy for those closest to us, we need to tell ourselves a story about being part of a human tribe.

For what it’s worth, I think it’s a true story. We humans are vastly more similar to each other as a whole than we have been led to believe. Our individual differences are vastly greater than any distinctions among identity-based groups of us. In fact, it’s quite hard to find much of anything meaningful that is universally true of all members of one identity group of humans but not true of any members of any other. Most of the identities we imagine are largely fictional, even deceptive. They are based on lies, both about ourselves and the 'other'.

But the human tribe is very, very real. We faced a near extinction event not long ago that means the entire human race is more genetically similar than a single family of chimpanzees. What we all dream of, feel, fear and desire is astonishingly similar. That scientific fact is the basis for the march of progress over the last many centuries, that reason and good sense and humanity can overcome the tribal madnesses that have long torn us apart in senseless conflict.

We are in a period of resurgence of these madnesses, on the left and the right wing of the political spectrum. I believe that what happens next depends on all of us. If we renew and refresh the wisdom of humanity embedded in many of our religions, constitutions and cherished beliefs, and most powerfully in our own individual consciences and reason, this moment could stand as a last gasp of the old, brutal, foolish ways.

The coming years will be a crucible on this journey I think. The pressing challenges we face, on climate change, AI, planetary boundaries and various doomsday powers we are creating in biotech and nanotech and much more, could bring us together or split us apart like never before. Our real differences will be essential to our survival, as they drive the diversity of perspective we need to create collective wisdom. But the false and demonizing narratives, the ones driven by selective empathy, will need to be dispelled if the human tribe is to be finally liberated from all the lies and lying conflicts that have divided us, to face the challenges that threaten all of us.


1 Comment

Adam Macer
Adam Macer
Oct 20, 2023

In the context of recent events in the Middle East in particular, if you recognise that anyone who lashes out at anyone else is suffering in some way (but not necessarily at the hands of the other they lash out against) it is possible to be empathic regardless of the crime of the sufferer.


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