Zoom and Empathy

Food for Thought

Now that Omicron is gone, I am going out again. To some degree, I have to force myself to step out. The life confined to home has become so routine that the idea of socializing doesn’t cross my mind unless someone invites me. So I appreciated Nigel’s invitation to dine with a bunch of his friends.

On the way there, I was reading about the conflict in Ukraine and wondering why any conflicts escalate to that point. A friend who knows a lot about that region told me that many Russians and Ukrainians hate each other. A Russian lady told me that Ukrainians often scam Russians online and clear their bank accounts. So, I guess staying home wouldn’t ease the conflict either. In fact, the opposite is likely happening.

Empathy is a natural reflex that requires proximity. Seeing someone crying in front of you makes you sad automatically. It’s not a conscious choice. Once you learn that he was just convicted of child molestation, your executive function puts a stop to that empathy.

Hearing about the suffering of someone in a foreign country with a different language on the other side of the earth doesn’t trigger empathy. That would require compassion, which in turn requires similar life experiences or the ability to extrapolate and apply one’s experiences to different circumstances, that is, imagination. You could have no compassion and still be empathetic. Some people hate hearing babies cry because their empathy tortures them.

Because we cannot rely on everyone to have compassion, empathy is our lowest common denominator for peace. We could probably ease the tension if we forced Ukrainians and Russians to have dinner face to face.

From this point of view, everything going “remote” is bad news. Empathy cannot function optimally even through Zoom. We cannot all be compassionate overnight. It’s like we suddenly dimmed the light globally, and we can no longer see each other’s emotions well. Tension keeps rising everywhere because empathy cannot intervene. Just because some idea makes sense theoretically doesn’t mean we humans are ready for it.

We are becoming too smart and efficient for our own good.