Friday, October 14, 2022

"The Platinum Rule Calls Not For Empathy, But Compassion"

In Rutger Bregman's book Humankind, he writes about an experiment in which psychologists told volunteers a sad story about a 10-year-old girl who was suffering from a deadly disease. She is, according to the story, on a waiting list for a life-saving treatment, but time is of the essence. The volunteers are told that they can move her up on the list, but they are instructed to be objective in their decision. Most people, understanding that all the children on the list were in dire straits, opted to not give this specific girl an advantage over the others.  A second group of volunteers, however,  was given the same set up, but this time they were asked to imagine how this specific girl must be feeling, to dwell on her pain, suffering, and fear. In this case, the majority chose to allow her to jump the line.

As Bregman points out, this is, at best a shaky moral choice. After all, giving this girl, who the second group of volunteers now "know" through their empathy, an advantage, they are in fact disadvantaging all the other kids, violating the principles of what most of us would consider even-handed fairness. Those other children have stories as well, but because the volunteers spent time empathizing with this one specific girl, they favored her. Bregman sees this as an example of how empathy can blind us:

(Empathy) is something we feel for people who are close to us; for people we can smell, hear and touch. For family and friends, for fans of our favorite band, and maybe for the homeless guy on our own street corner. For cute puppies we can cuddle and pet, even as we eat animals mistreated on factory farms out of sight. And for people we see on TV -- mostly those the camera zooms in on, while sad music sweeps in the background . . . If anything, empathy makes us less forgiving, because the more we identify with victims, the more we generalise about our enemies. The bright spotlight we shine on our chosen few makes us blind to the perspective of our adversaries, because everybody else falls outside our view. 
The truth, Bregman concludes is that "empathy and xenophobia go hand in hand."

This is an upsetting concept for me, one that flies in the face of one of my principles of being an important adult in the life of young children. I've tended to view empathy as a pure good, the one human trait that I can count on to make the world a better place. I've seen the beautiful results of empathy time and again in the classroom as children embrace and help one another out of motivations that can only be called empathetic. But I can see Bregman's point. Empathy tends to cause us to focus on individuals to the exclusion of others, to cause us to do good for the girl on the waiting list, elevating her above the others we don't know who are on the list and who are equally deserving.

Not only that, but even if we are capable of feeling empathy for humanity at large, which I think we can all admit is more difficult than it is for individuals, it is emotionally exhausting. 


Go ahead and try it: imagine yourself in the shoes of one other person. Now imagine yourself in the shoes of a hundred other people. And a million How about seven billion? . . . We simply can't do it. 

In other words, empathy is not only blinding, but also not sustainable. 

Isabel Wilkerson, in her book Caste, is likewise suspicious of empathy. She writes, "Empathy is commonly viewed as putting yourself in someone else's shoes and imagining how you would feel." This, of course, is the basis for what we know as "The Golden Rule": Do unto others as you would have them do unto you (or some such phrasing). "That could be seen as a start," writes Wilkerson, "but that is little more than role-playing, and it is not enough in the ruptured world we live in." 

I've written about The Gold Rule before. It could, in fact, be considered an essentially selfish approach to helping others, one that considers what we would want, rather than on what another person would want. For instance, as a middle-aged, white, male, what I would want or need is likely to differ wildly from what a young, black, female would want or need in any given circumstance. If I'm to help her, I must learn to step not into her shoes, but outside of myself. Empathy is not an end unto itself, but rather a starting point. Wilkerson calls us to what she calls "radical empathy," which she defines as "putting in the work to educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another's experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel."

As George Bernard Shaw more flippantly put it, "Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may be different." 

Bregman suggests that The Golden Rule be replaced with what he calls "The Platinum Rule," which a group of four and five-year-olds I once taught discovered on their own, phrasing it as "Don't do anything to anybody unless you ask them." Or as Wilkerson phrases it, "to educate oneself and to listen." As Bregman writes, "The Platinum Rule calls not for empathy, but compassion." The ultimate weakness of empathy is that it calls for us to feel with others when what is needed, if we are going to do good for others, is to feel for them. Instead of empathetically sharing their pain and suffering, which tends to incapacitate and exhaust us, we should strive to call up our feelings of "warmth, concern and care," which has the opposite effect: rather than tiring us, it energizes.

Empathy is perhaps the crowning instinct of the human animal. I don't know whether or not it sets us apart from other species because I've known some dogs and cats well enough to know they experience at least something like it. But empathy can't be an end in itself. I've known too many people who are perpetually exhausted from their habit of jumping into what they perceive to be the "shoes" of others, who just need to "take a break" or "think happy thoughts." I've been there myself, but compassion, I'm finding, allows me to not just drown in the river alongside my fellow human, but rather gives me a rock upon which to stand as I reach out my hand. As Wilkerson writes, "Radical empathy is not about you and what you think you would do in a situation you have never been in and perhaps never will. It is the kindred connection from a place of deep knowing that opens your spirit to the pain of another as they perceive it." And it's from this place, that we can be of service.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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