Empathy and mutual respect provide the underpinnings for societal trust and economic stability. Neuroscience confirms that we are hardwired to be in connection with one another; cultures that create an ethic of hyper-individualism put us at odds with our natural proclivity to relate and connect. As Einstein once said:
“A human being is part of a whole...but he experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
Many of us live in cultures that pay lip service to “community” but in fact often function in a way that overstates individual competitive accomplishment and uses fear and shame to undermine the power of connection. Jean Baker Miller spoke of the corrosive effects of “condemned isolation,” the feeling of immobilization, isolation, self blame, being overwhelmed and hopeless. It has been said that “Isolation is the glue that holds oppression in place.” (Laing, K. 1998, Katalyst leadership workshop presented at In Pursuit of Parity: Teachers as Liberators, Boston, MA.) If dominant groups can isolate, shame, and silence the nondominant groups, they disempower them and can seize and retain more power for themselves, creating fear and inequality. The antidote to fear and immobilization is connection. Social justice is founded on mutual respect and growth fostering connection.
A model for human experience that emphasizes our separateness works against our sense of basic connection and belonging. It leads us to believe that we should function autonomously in situations where that is impossible. By placing unattainable standards of individualism on us, it leaves us vulnerable to feeling even more inadequate, ashamed, and stressed out. There is abundant data that social ties are decreasing in the U.S.; more and more people feel they can trust no one. (Putnam, R. 2000 Bowling Alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon and Schuster.) And traditional psychology with its overemphasis on internal, individual problems contributes to our failure, at a societal level, to invest in social justice and social support programs. Rather than addressing the problems in a society that disempower us and perpetuate systems of injustice, we have tended to locate the problems in the individual. Martin Luther King once said, “compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” The powerful then keep invisible the ways in which privilege and power differentials support their success.
Further, the myth of meritocracy does a great disservice to most people who do not enjoy privilege at birth. Purely personal effort and personal control are overstated as the reason for individual success. In western culture there is pathological preoccupation with “the self,” “self interest,” individual competition as the source of all success. Our privileged narratives celebrate lone heroes, winning, being dominant, being certain and in control. The need to be in connection, to be part of something larger--a community, nature, and a movement--is often seen as a sign of weakness.
We now know that inequality reduces empathy in a society and reduced empathy in turn contributes to inequality. Physical and emotional distance between the rich and the poor erodes empathy and mutuality. Trust, empathy, and social structures play critical roles in determining not just individual health and happiness but also how well regions and nations perform economically and socially. When empathy is sparse in a culture, the culture itself becomes less stable, less productive, less healthy, and less just. Typically under these conditions there are increases in wealth disparity, violence, and lack of respect for human lives.
A just society is founded on empathy, respect, mutual empowerment. Kindness and connection put the brakes on the chemistries of fear and threat. Practicing empathy and generosity is good for the collective and good for individuals. Our brains thrive when we practice empathy. In a culture of disconnection, discovering that we are hardwired to connect can serve as a source of hope. We currently live with the dilemma of neurobiologies that are wired to thrive in connection and a culture that tells us we must stand alone, that we are autonomous, self-sufficient, and thrive in competitive settings. This is a set up for social and personal failure.
Mutuality is based on respect, a growing capacity to speak our truths, and allowing others to have an impact on us. As Patricia Hill Collins noted, “a commitment to truth requires a politics of empathy; a commitment to truth requires a commitment to social justice.”(Collins, P.H. 1990 Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness and the politics of empowerment. Boston: Unwin Hyman). We need to bear witness to one another’s truths; we need to build communities where differences do not sustain stratifications but contribute to building bridges of respect and growth.
Neuroscience is now delivering data that shows us--without a doubt--that we are profoundly interdependent creatures. We have a responsibility for one another’s well-being and we need to foster social programs built on the real facts of our concern for one another and thus fulfill our intrinsic capacity for empathy and caring.
Judith V Jordan, Ph.D. is Director of the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at the Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College. A founding scholar and one of the creators of Relational-Cultural Theory, she has published extensively and is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.