By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
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"If I am a thinking being, I must regard life other than my own
with equal reverence, for I shall know that it longs for fullness and
development as deeply as I do myself. Therefore, I see that evil is what
annihilates, hampers, or hinders life.. Goodness, by the same token, is the
saving or helping of life, the enabling of whatever life I can to attain its
Albert Schweitzer, "Philosophy of Civilization," 1923
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Empathy is comprised of two components:
I. Cold Empathy: an intersubjective agreement as to the mental content (especially emotions) of two or more human subjects;
II. Warm Empathy: the emotional response to Cold Empathy.
Cold Empathy is an act of taxonomy and an attempt to overcome the barriers posed by the inaccessibility of the private languages of the empathee and the empathor. It entails a comparison of the mental states of the subjects, based on introspection and the classification of said mental states within agreed linguistic and cultural frameworks, vocabularies, and contexts.
Warm Empathy is the emotional arousal engendered by Cold Empathy in the empathor and the panoply of emotional responses it evokes.
Both cold and warm empathy assume the commonality and universality of human experience. This is why we tend to empathise with people who resemble us in every way, but this resemblance also provokes strong narcissistic defenses (see this article about the Narcissism of Small Differences.)
Empathy is the bedrock of morality. Morality can have an external locus (induced by God, social strictures, or upbringing) which is outside the emapthor's control - or an internal locus (reason): the outcome of conscious, fully-controlled, inner processes.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica (2011 edition) defines empathy as:
"The ability to imagine oneself in anther's place and understand the other's feelings, desires, ideas, and actions. It is a term coined in the early 20th century, equivalent to the German Einfühlung and modelled on "sympathy." The term is used with special (but not exclusive) reference to aesthetic experience. The most obvious example, perhaps, is that of the actor or singer who genuinely feels the part he is performing. With other works of art, a spectator may, by a kind of introjection, feel himself involved in what he observes or contemplates. The use of empathy is an important part of the counselling technique developed by the American psychologist Carl Rogers."
Empathy is predicated upon and must, therefore, incorporate the following elements:
While (a) is presumed to be universally available to all agents (though in varying degrees) - the existence of the other components of empathy should not be taken for granted.
Conditions (b) and (c), for instance, are not satisfied by people who suffer from personality disorders, such as the Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Condition (d) is not met in autistic people (e.g., those who suffer from Asperger's Disorder). Condition (e) is so totally dependent on the specifics of the culture, period and society in which it exists - that it is rather meaningless and ambiguous as a yardstick. Condition (f) suffer from both afflictions: it is both culture-dependent AND is not satisfied in many people (such as those who suffer from the Antisocial Personality Disorder and who are devoid of any conscience or moral sense).
Thus, the very existence of empathy should be questioned. It is often confused with inter-subjectivity. The latter is defined thus by "The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, 1995":
"This term refers to the status of being somehow accessible to at least two (usually all, in principle) minds or 'subjectivities'. It thus implies that there is some sort of communication between those minds; which in turn implies that each communicating mind is aware not only of the existence of the other but also of its intention to convey information to the other. The idea, for theorists, is that if subjective processes can be brought into agreement, then perhaps that is as good as the (unattainable?) status of being objective - completely independent of subjectivity. The question facing such theorists is whether intersubjectivity is definable without presupposing an objective environment in which communication takes place (the 'wiring' from subject A to subject B). At a less fundamental level, however, the need for intersubjective verification of scientific hypotheses has been long recognized". (page 414).
On the face of it, the difference between intersubjectivity and empathy is double:
These "differences" are artificial. This is how empathy is defined in "Psychology - An Introduction (Ninth Edition) by Charles G. Morris, Prentice Hall, 1996":
"Closely related to the ability to read other people's emotions is empathy - the arousal of an emotion in an observer that is a vicarious response to the other person's situation... Empathy depends not only on one's ability to identify someone else's emotions but also on one's capacity to put oneself in the other person's place and to experience an appropriate emotional response. Just as sensitivity to non-verbal cues increases with age, so does empathy: The cognitive and perceptual abilities required for empathy develop only as a child matures... (page 442)
In empathy training, for example, each member of the couple is taught to share inner feelings and to listen to and understand the partner's feelings before responding to them. The empathy technique focuses the couple's attention on feelings and requires that they spend more time listening and less time in rebuttal." (page 576).
Thus empathy does require the communication of feelings AND an agreement on the appropriate outcome of the communicated emotions (=affective agreement). In the absence of such agreement, we are faced with inappropriate affect (laughing at a funeral, for instance).
Moreover, empathy does relate to external objects and is provoked by them. There is no empathy in the absence of an empathee. Granted, intersubjectivity is intuitively applied to the inanimate while empathy is applied to the living (animals, humans, even plants). But this is a difference in human preferences - not in definition.
Empathy can, thus, be re-defined as a form of intersubjectivity which involves living things as "objects" to which the communicated intersubjective agreement relates. It is wrong to limit our understanding of empathy to the communication of emotion. Rather, it is the intersubjective, concomitant experience of BEING. The empathor empathizes not only with the empathee's emotions but also with his physical state and other parameters of existence (pain, hunger, thirst, suffocation, sexual pleasure etc.).
This leads to the important (and perhaps intractable) psychophysical question.
Intersubjectivity relates to external objects but the subjects communicate and reach an agreement regarding the way THEY have been affected by the objects.
Empathy relates to external objects (Others) but the subjects communicate and reach an agreement regarding the way THEY would have felt had they BEEN the object.
This is no minor difference, if it, indeed, exists. But does it really exist?
What is it that we feel in empathy? Do we feel OUR emotions/sensations, provoked by an external trigger (classic intersubjectivity) or do we experience a TRANSFER of the object's feelings/sensations to us?
Such a transfer being physically impossible (as far as we know) - we are forced to adopt the former model. Empathy is the set of reactions - emotional and cognitive - to being triggered by an external object (the Other). It is the equivalent of resonance in the physical sciences. But we have NO WAY of ascertaining that the "wavelength" of such resonance is identical in both subjects.
In other words, we have no way to verify that the feelings or sensations invoked in the two (or more) subjects are the same. What I call "sadness" may not be what you call "sadness". Colours, for instance, have unique, uniform, independently measurable properties (their energy). Even so, no one can prove that what I see as "red" is what another person (perhaps a Daltonist) would call "red". If this is true where "objective", measurable, phenomena, like colors, are concerned - it is infinitely more true in the case of emotions or feelings.
We are, therefore, forced to refine our definition:
Empathy is a form of intersubjectivity which involves living things as "objects" to which the communicated intersubjective agreement relates. It is the intersubjective, concomitant experience of BEING. The empathor empathizes not only with the empathee's emotions but also with his physical state and other parameters of existence (pain, hunger, thirst, suffocation, sexual pleasure etc.).
The meaning attributed to the words used by the parties to the intersubjective agreement known as empathy is totally dependent upon each party. The same words are used, the same denotates - but it cannot be proven that the same connotates, the same experiences, emotions and sensations are being discussed or communicated.
Language (and, by extension, art and culture) serve to introduce us to other points of view ("what is it like to be someone else" to paraphrase Thomas Nagle). By providing a bridge between the subjective (inner experience) and the objective (words, images, sounds), language facilitates social exchange and interaction. It is a dictionary which translates one's subjective private language to the coin of the public medium. Knowledge and language are, thus, the ultimate social glue, though both are based on approximations and guesses (see George Steiner's "After Babel").
But, whereas the intersubjective agreement regarding measurements and observations concerning external objects IS verifiable or falsifiable using INDEPENDENT tools (e.g., lab experiments) - the intersubjective agreement which concerns itself with the emotions, sensations and experiences of subjects as communicated by them IS NOT verifiable or falsifiable using INDEPENDENT tools. The interpretation of this second kind of agreement is dependent upon introspection and an assumption that identical words used by different subjects still possess identical meaning. This assumption is not falsifiable (or verifiable). It is neither true nor false. It is a probabilistic statement, but without a probability distribution. It is, in short, a meaningless statement. As a result, empathy itself is meaningless.
In human-speak, if you say that you are sad and I empathize with you it means that we have an agreement. I regard you as my object. You communicate to me a property of yours ("sadness"). This triggers in me a recollection of "what is sadness" or "what is to be sad". I say that I know what you mean, I have been sad before, I know what it is like to be sad. I empathize with you. We agree about being sad. We have an intersubjective agreement.
Alas, such an agreement is meaningless. We cannot (yet) measure sadness, quantify it, crystallize it, access it in any way from the outside. We are totally and absolutely reliant on your introspection and on my introspection. There is no way anyone can prove that my "sadness" is even remotely similar to your sadness. I may be feeling or experiencing something that you might find hilarious and not sad at all. Still, I call it "sadness" and I empathize with you.
This would not have been that grave if empathy hadn't been the cornerstone of morality.
"Empathy and other forms of social awareness are important in the development of a moral sense. Morality embraces a person's beliefs about the appropriateness or goodness of what he does, thinks, or feels... Childhood is ... the time at which moral standards begin to develop in a process that often extends well into adulthood. The American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg hypothesized that people's development of moral standards passes through stages that can be grouped into three moral levels...
At the third level, that of postconventional moral reasoning, the adult bases his moral standards on principles that he himself has evaluated and that he accepts as inherently valid, regardless of society's opinion. He is aware of the arbitrary, subjective nature of social standards and rules, which he regards as relative rather than absolute in authority.
Thus the bases for justifying moral standards pass from avoidance of punishment to avoidance of adult disapproval and rejection to avoidance of internal guilt and self-recrimination. The person's moral reasoning also moves toward increasingly greater social scope (i.e., including more people and institutions) and greater abstraction (i.e., from reasoning about physical events such as pain or pleasure to reasoning about values, rights, and implicit contracts)."
But, if moral reasoning is based on introspection and empathy - it is, indeed, dangerously relative and not objective in any known sense of the word. Empathy is a unique agreement on the emotional and experiential content of two or more introspective processes in two or more subjects. Such an agreement can never have any meaning, even as far as the parties to it are concerned. They can never be sure that they are discussing the same emotions or experiences. There is no way to compare, measure, observe, falsify or verify (prove) that the "same" emotion is experienced identically by the parties to the empathy agreement. Empathy is meaningless and introspection involves a private language despite what Wittgenstein had to say. Morality is thus reduced to a set of meaningless private languages.
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"... Others have argued that because even rather young children are capable of showing empathy with the pain of others, the inhibition of aggressive behaviour arises from this moral affect rather than from the mere anticipation of punishment. Some scientists have found that children differ in their individual capacity for empathy, and, therefore, some children are more sensitive to moral prohibitions than others.
Young children's growing awareness of their own emotional states, characteristics, and abilities leads to empathy--i.e., the ability to appreciate the feelings and perspectives of others. Empathy and other forms of social awareness are in turn important in the development of a moral sense... Another important aspect of children's emotional development is the formation of their self-concept, or identity--i.e., their sense of who they are and what their relation to other people is.
According to Lipps's concept of empathy, a person appreciates another person's reaction by a projection of the self into the other. In his Ästhetik, 2 vol. (1903-06; 'Aesthetics'), he made all appreciation of art dependent upon a similar self-projection into the object."
This may well be the key. Empathy has little to do with the other person (the empathee). It is simply the result of conditioning and socialization. In other words, when we hurt someone - we don't experience his pain. We experience OUR pain. Hurting somebody - hurts US. The reaction of pain is provoked in US by OUR own actions. We have been taught a learned response of feeling pain when we inflict it upon another. But we have also been taught to feel responsible for our fellow beings (guilt). So, we experience pain whenever another person claims to experience it as well. We feel guilty.
To use the example of pain, we experience it in tandem with another person because we feel guilty or somehow responsible for his condition. A learned reaction is activated and we experience (our kind of) pain as well. We communicate it to the other person and an agreement of empathy is struck between us.
We attribute feelings, sensations and experiences to the object of our actions. It is the psychological defence mechanism of projection. Unable to conceive of inflicting pain upon ourselves - we displace the source. It is the other's pain that we are feeling, we keep telling ourselves, not our own.
"Perhaps the most important aspect of children's emotional development is a growing awareness of their own emotional states and the ability to discern and interpret the emotions of others. The last half of the second year is a time when children start becoming aware of their own emotional states, characteristics, abilities, and potential for action; this phenomenon is called self-awareness... (coupled with strong narcissistic behaviours and traits - SV)...
This growing awareness of and ability to recall one's own emotional states leads to empathy, or the ability to appreciate the feelings and perceptions of others. Young children's dawning awareness of their own potential for action inspires them to try to direct (or otherwise affect) the behaviour of others...
...With age, children acquire the ability to understand the perspective, or point of view, of other people, a development that is closely linked with the empathic sharing of others' emotions...
One major factor underlying these changes is the child's increasing cognitive sophistication. For example, in order to feel the emotion of guilt, a child must appreciate the fact that he could have inhibited a particular action of his that violated a moral standard. The awareness that one can impose a restraint on one's own behaviour requires a certain level of cognitive maturation, and, therefore, the emotion of guilt cannot appear until that competence is attained."
That empathy is a REACTION to external stimuli that is fully contained within the empathor and then projected onto the empathee is clearly demonstrated by "inborn empathy". It is the ability to exhibit empathy and altruistic behaviour in response to facial expressions. Newborns react this way to their mother's facial expression of sadness or distress.
This serves to prove that empathy has very little to do with the feelings, experiences or sensations of the other (the empathee). Surely, the infant has no idea what it is like to feel sad and definitely not what it is like for his mother to feel sad. In this case, it is a complex reflexive reaction. Later on, empathy is still rather reflexive, the result of conditioning.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica quotes fascinating research which dramatically proves the object-independent nature of empathy. Empathy is an internal reaction, an internal process, triggered by external cue provided by animate objects. It is communicated to the empathee-other by the empathor but the communication and the resulting agreement ("I know how you feel therefore we agree on how you feel") is rendered meaningless by the absence of a monovalent, unambiguous dictionary.
"An extensive series of studies indicated that positive emotion feelings enhance empathy and altruism. It was shown by the American psychologist Alice M. Isen that relatively small favours or bits of good luck (like finding money in a coin telephone or getting an unexpected gift) induced positive emotion in people and that such emotion regularly increased the subjects' inclination to sympathize or provide help.
Several studies have demonstrated that positive emotion facilitates creative problem solving. One of these studies showed that positive emotion enabled subjects to name more uses for common objects. Another showed that positive emotion enhanced creative problem solving by enabling subjects to see relations among objects (and other people - SV) that would otherwise go unnoticed. A number of studies have demonstrated the beneficial effects of positive emotion on thinking, memory, and action in pre-school and older children."
If empathy increases with positive emotion (a result of good luck, for instance) - then it has little to do with its objects and a lot to do with the person in whom it is provoked.
Q. How important is empathy to proper psychological functioning?
A. Empathy is more important socially than it is psychologically. The absence of empathy - for instance in the Narcissistic and Antisocial personality disorders - predisposes people to exploit and abuse others. Empathy is the bedrock of our sense of morality. Arguably, aggressive behavior is as inhibited by empathy at least as much as it is by anticipated punishment.
But the existence of empathy in a person is also a sign of self-awareness, a healthy identity, a well-regulated sense of self-worth, and self-love (in the positive sense). Its absence denotes emotional and cognitive immaturity, an inability to love, to truly relate to others, to respect their boundaries and accept their needs, feelings, hopes, fears, choices, and preferences as autonomous entities.
Q. How is empathy developed?
A. It may be innate. Even toddlers seem to empathize with the pain - or happiness - of others (such as their caregivers). Empathy increases as the child forms a self-concept (identity). The more aware the infant is of his or her emotional states, the more he explores his limitations and capabilities - the more prone he is to projecting this new found knowledge unto others. By attributing to people around him his new gained insights about himself, the child develop a moral sense and inhibits his anti-social impulses. The development of empathy is, therefore, a part of the process of socialization.
But, as the American psychologist Carl Rogers taught us, empathy is also learned and inculcated. We are coached to feel guilt and pain when we inflict suffering on another person. Empathy is an attempt to avoid our own self-imposed agony by projecting it onto another.
Q. Is there an increasing dearth of empathy in society today? Why do you think so?
A. The social institutions that reified, propagated and administered empathy have imploded. The nuclear family, the closely-knit extended clan, the village, the neighborhood, the Church- have all unraveled. Society is atomized and anomic. The resulting alienation fostered a wave of antisocial behavior, both criminal and "legitimate". The survival value of empathy is on the decline. It is far wiser to be cunning, to cut corners, to deceive, and to abuse - than to be empathic. Empathy has largely dropped from the contemporary curriculum of socialization.
In a desperate attempt to cope with these inexorable processes, behaviors predicated on a lack of empathy have been pathologized and "medicalized". The sad truth is that narcissistic or antisocial conduct is both normative and rational. No amount of "diagnosis", "treatment", and medication can hide or reverse this fact. Ours is a cultural malaise which permeates every single cell and strand of the social fabric.
Q. Is there any empirical evidence we can point to of a decline in empathy?
Empathy cannot be measured directly - but only through proxies such as criminality, terrorism, charity, violence, antisocial behavior, related mental health disorders, or abuse.
Moreover, it is extremely difficult to separate the effects of deterrence from the effects of empathy.
If I don't batter my wife, torture animals, or steal - is it because I am empathetic or because I don't want to go to jail?
Rising litigiousness, zero tolerance, and skyrocketing rates of incarceration - as well as the ageing of the population - have sliced intimate partner violence and other forms of crime across the United States in the last decade. But this benevolent decline had nothing to do with increasing empathy.
The statistics are open to interpretation but it would be safe to say that the last century has been the most violent and least empathetic in human history. Wars and terrorism are on the rise, charity giving on the wane (measured as percentage of national wealth), welfare policies are being abolished, Darwininan models of capitalism are spreading. In the last two decades, mental health disorders were added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association whose hallmark is the lack of empathy. The violence is reflected in our popular culture: movies, video games, and the media.
Empathy - supposedly a spontaneous reaction to the plight of our fellow humans - is now channeled through self-interested and bloated non-government organizations or multilateral outfits. The vibrant world of private empathy has been replaced by faceless state largesse. Pity, mercy, the elation of giving are tax-deductible. It is a sorry sight.
I postulate the existence of three basic modes of interpersonal relatedness:
(1) I=mcu (pronounced: I am seeing you)
(2) I=ucm (pronounced: I am what you see in me)
(3) U=icm (pronounced: You is what I see as me)
Mode (1) and (3) represent variants of empathy. The ability to "see" the other is indispensable to the development and exercise of empathy. Even more crucial is the capacity to identify with the other, to "see" the other as "me" (i.e., as oneself).
Mode (2) is known as pathological narcissism. The narcissist forges a False Self that is designed to elicit external input in order to sustain itself and perform some important ego functions. The narcissists exists merely as a reflection in the eyes of others. In the absence of Narcissistic Supply (attention), the narcissist crumbles and withers.
Empathy is at the foundation of both altruism and collaboration. Thus, while it does consume scarce resources, empathy confers important evolutionary advantages both from the individual’s point of view (cooperation) and from the species’s (altruism.)
Yet, we are witnessing a marked decline in both the ubiquity and utility of empathy. The decline in physical violence is not a good proxy to a supposed rise in empathy: aggression and narcissism merely mutated into non-physical forms enabled by technology.
Whatever happened to empathy? Where have solidarity, charity, and compassion gone?
A series of earth-shattering social, economic, and technological trends converged to render empathy a tedious nuisance best avoided. Consider the precipitous decline of empathy in the world of business, in the workplace, and in relationships between suppliers and customers.
The trends that affect this marked shift are:
1. Disappearing Job security is a thing of the past. Itinerancy in various McJobs reduces the incentive to invest time, effort, and resources into a position that may not be yours next week. Brutal layoffs and downsizing traumatized the workforce and produced in the typical workplace a culture of obsequiousness, blind obeisance, the suppression of independent thought and speech, and avoidance of initiative and innovation. Many offices and shop floors now resemble prisons. Here uncertainty and predictability breed autism and narcissism.
2. Outsourcing and offshoring of back office (and, more recently, customer relations and research and development) functions sharply and adversely effected the quality of services from helpdesks to airline ticketing and from insurance claims processing to remote maintenance. Cultural mismatches between the (typically Western) client base and the offshore service department (usually in a developing country where labor is cheap and plenty) only exacerbated the breakdown of trust between customer and provider or supplier. Empathy is founded on trust in both donor and recipient.
3. The populace in developed countries are addicted to leisure time. Most people regard their jobs as a necessary evil, best avoided whenever possible. Hence phenomena like the permanent temp - employees who prefer a succession of temporary assignments to holding a proper job. The media and the arts contribute to this perception of work as a drag - or a potentially dangerous addiction (when they portray raging and abusive workaholics).
4. The other side of this dismal coin is workaholism:- the addiction to work. Far from valuing it, these addicts resent their dependence. The job performance of the typical workaholic leaves a lot to be desired. Workaholics are fatigued, suffer from ancillary addictions, and short attention spans. They frequently abuse substances, are narcissistic and destructively competitive (being driven, they are incapable of team work).
5. The depersonalization of manufacturing - the intermediated divorce between the artisan/worker and his client contributed a lot to the indifference and alienation of the common industrial worker, the veritable "anonymous cog in the machine".
Not only was the link between worker and product broken - but the bond between artisan and client was severed as well. Few employees know their customers or patrons first hand. It is hard to empathize with and care about a statistic, a buyer whom you have never met and never likely to encounter. It is easy in such circumstances to feel immune to the consequences of one's negligence and apathy at work. It is impossible to be proud of what you do and to be committed to your work - if you never set eyes on either the final product or the customer! Charlie Chaplin's masterpiece, "Modern Times" captured this estrangement brilliantly.
6. Many former employees of mega-corporations abandon the rat race and establish their own businesses - small and home enterprises. Undercapitalized, understaffed, and outperformed by the competition, these fledging and amateurish outfits usually spew out shoddy products and lamentable services - only to expire within the first year of business.
7. Despite decades of advanced notice, globalization caught most firms the world over by utter surprise. Ill-prepared and fearful of the onslaught of foreign competition, companies big and small grapple with logistical nightmares, supply chain calamities, culture shocks and conflicts, and rapacious competitors. Mere survival (and opportunistic managerial plunder) replaced client satisfaction as the prime value. Xenophobia manifests itself in the forms of anti-immigrant sentiments, politics, and policies.
8. The decline of the professional guilds on the one hand and the trade unions on the other hand greatly reduced worker self-discipline, pride, and peer-regulated quality control. Quality is monitored by third parties or compromised by being subjected to Procrustean financial constraints and concerns.
The investigation of malpractice and its punishment are now at the hand of vast and ill-informed bureaucracies, either corporate or governmental. Once malpractice is exposed and admitted to, the availability of malpractice insurance renders most sanctions unnecessary or toothless. Corporations prefer to bury mishaps and malfeasance rather than cope with and rectify them.
9. The quality of one's work, and of services and products one consumed, used to be guaranteed. One's personal idiosyncrasies, eccentricities, and problems were left at home. Work was sacred and one's sense of self-worth depended on the satisfaction of one's clients. You simply didn't let your personal life affect the standards of your output.
This strict and useful separation vanished with the rise of the malignant-narcissistic variant of individualism. It led to the emergence of idiosyncratic and fragmented standards of quality. No one knows what to expect, when, and from whom. Transacting business has become a form of psychological warfare. The customer has to rely on the goodwill of suppliers, manufacturers, and service providers - and often finds himself at their whim and mercy. "The client is always right" has gone the way of the dodo. "It's my (the supplier's or provider's) way or the highway" rules supreme.
This uncertainty is further exacerbated by the pandemic eruption of mental health disorders - 15% of the population are severely pathologized according to the latest studies. Antisocial behaviors - from outright crime to pernicious passive-aggressive sabotage - once rare in the workplace, are now abundant.
The ethos of teamwork, tempered collectivism, and collaboration for the greater good is now derided or decried. Conflict on all levels has replaced negotiated compromise and has become the prevailing narrative. Litigiousness, vigilante justice, use of force, and "getting away with it" are now extolled. Yet, conflicts lead to the misallocation of economic resources. They are non-productive and not conducive to sustaining good relations between producer or provider and consumer.
10. Moral relativism is the mirror image of rampant individualism. Social cohesion and discipline diminished, ideologies and religions crumbled, and anomic states substituted for societal order. The implicit contracts between manufacturer or service provider and customer and between employee and employer were shredded and replaced with ad-hoc negotiated operational checklists. Social decoherence is further enhanced by the anonymization and depersonalization of the modern chain of production (see point 5 above).
Nowadays, people facilely and callously abrogate their responsibilities towards their families, communities, and nations. The mushrooming rate of divorce, the decline in personal thrift, the skyrocketing number of personal bankruptcies, and the ubiquity of venality and corruption both corporate and political are examples of such dissipation. No one seems to care about anything. Why should the client or employer expect a different treatment?
As Weber observed largely correctly, the Protestant work ethic underlies the rise of modern capitalism. Calvinism regarded work as a form of worship and success as proof of divine approval. Protestants of all creeds valued time - God's-given gift - and sought to maximize its benefits.
But the Puritan and Non-conformist empathic values of a Commonwealth wherein everyone is equal before God and therefore deserves to be treated well and with respect were abandoned along the way. Even the infusion of Jewish values - charity, community, industriousness, the idea of progress and self-betterment, learning, and pragmatism - in the late 19th century failed to stop the erosion in communality and the rise of malignant, short-sighted narcissism, the anathema of the empathy.
11. The disintegration of the educational systems of the West made it difficult for employers to find qualified and motivated personnel. Courtesy, competence, ambition, personal responsibility, the ability to see the bigger picture (synoptic view), interpersonal aptitude, analytic and synthetic skills, not to mention numeracy, literacy, access to technology, and the sense of belonging which they foster - are all products of proper schooling.
12. Irrational beliefs, pseudo-sciences, and the occult rushed in to profitably fill the vacuum left by the crumbling education systems. These wasteful preoccupations encourage in their followers an overpowering sense of fatalistic determinism and hinder their ability to exercise judgment and initiative. The discourse of commerce and finance relies on unmitigated rationality and is, in essence, contractual. Irrationality is detrimental to the successful and happy exchange of goods and services.
13. Employers place no premium on empathy. Workers don't get paid more or differently if they are more conscientious, or more efficient, or more friendly. In an interlinked, globalized world, customers are fungible. There are so many billions of potential clients that customer loyalty has been rendered irrelevant. Marketing, showmanship, and narcissistic bluster are far better appreciated by workplaces because they serve to attract clientele to be bilked and then discarded or ignored.
Empathy is on a precipitous decline in the family and home environments. Technology is partly to blame, but so are other social and economic trends.
On June 9, 2005 the BBC reported about an unusual project underway in Sheffield (in the United Kingdom). The daily movements and interactions of a family living in a technology-laden, futuristic home are being monitored and recorded. "The aim is to help house builders predict how we will want to use our homes 10 or 20 years from now." - explained the reporter.
The home of the future may be quite a chilling - or uplifting - prospect, depending on one's prejudices and predilections.
Christopher Sanderson, of The Future Laboratory and Richard Brindley, of the Royal Institute of British Architects describe smaller flats with movable walls as a probable response to over-crowding. Home systems will cater to all the entertainment and media needs of the inhabitants further insulating them from their social milieu.
Even hobbies will move indoors. Almost every avocation - from cooking to hiking - can now be indulged at home with pro-am (professional-amateur) equipment. We may become self-sufficient as far as functions we now outsource - such as education and dry cleaning - go. Lastly, in the long-run, robots are likely to replace some pets and many human interactions.
These technological developments will have grave effects on family cohesion and functioning.
The family is the mainspring of support of every kind. It mobilizes psychological resources and alleviates emotional burdens. It allows for the sharing of tasks, provides material goods together with cognitive training. It is the prime socialization agent and encourages the absorption of information, most of it useful and adaptive.
This division of labour between parents and children is vital both to development and to proper adaptation. The child must feel, in a functional family, that s/he can share his experiences without being defensive and that the feedback that s/he is likely to receive will be open and unbiased. The only "bias" acceptable (because it is consistent with constant outside feedback) is the set of beliefs, values and goals that is internalized via imitation and unconscious identification.
So, the family is the first and the most important source of identity and of emotional support. It is a greenhouse wherein a child feels loved, accepted and secure - the prerequisites for the development of personal resources. On the material level, the family should provide the basic necessities (and, preferably, beyond), physical care and protection and refuge and shelter during crises.
Elsewhere, we have discussed the role of the mother (The Primary Object). The father's part is mostly neglected, even in professional literature. However, recent research demonstrates his importance to the orderly and healthy development of the child.
He participates in the day to day care, is an intellectual catalyst, who encourages the child to develop his interests and to satisfy his curiosity through the manipulation of various instruments and games. He is a source of authority and discipline, a boundary setter, enforcing and encouraging positive behaviors and eliminating negative ones. He also provides emotional support and economic security, thus stabilizing the family unit. Finally, he is the prime source of masculine orientation and identification to the male child - and gives warmth and love as a male to his daughter, without exceeding the socially permissible limits.
These traditional roles of the family are being eroded from both the inside and the outside. The proper functioning of the classical family was determined, to a large extent, by the geographical proximity of its members. They all huddled together in the "family unit" – an identifiable volume of physical space, distinct and different to other units. The daily friction and interaction between the members of the family molded them, influenced their patterns of behavior and their reactive patterns and determined how successful their adaptation to life would be.
With the introduction of modern, fast transportation and telecommunications, it was no longer possible to confine the members of the family to the household, to the village, or even to the neighborhood. The industrial revolution splintered the classical family and scattered its members.
Still, the result was not the disappearance of the family but the formation of nuclear families: leaner and meaner units of production. The extended family of yore (three or four generations) merely spread its wings over a greater physical distance – but in principle, remained almost intact.
Grandma and grandpa would live in one city with a few of the younger or less successful aunts and uncles. Their other daughters or sons would be married and moved to live either in another part of the same city, or in another geographical location (even in another continent). But contact was maintained by more or less frequent visits, reunions and meetings on opportune or critical occasions.
This was true well into the 1950s.
However, a series of developments in the second half of the twentieth century threatens to completely decouple the family from its physical dimension. We are in the process of experimenting with the family of the future: the virtual family. This is a family devoid of any spatial (geographical) or temporal identity. Its members do not necessarily share the same genetic heritage (the same blood lineage). It is bound mainly by communication, rather than by interests. Its domicile is cyberspace, its residence in the realm of the symbolic.
Urbanization and industrialization pulverized the structure of the family, by placing it under enormous pressures and by causing it to relegate most of its functions to outside agencies: education was taken over by schools, health – by (national or private) health plans, entertainment by television, interpersonal communication by telephony and computers, socialization by the mass media and the school system and so on.
Devoid of its traditional functions, subject to torsion and other elastic forces – the family was torn apart and gradually stripped of its meaning. The main functions left to the family unit were the provision of the comfort of familiarity (shelter) and serving as a physical venue for leisure activities.
The first role - familiarity, comfort, security, and shelter - was eroded by the global brands.
The "Home Away from Home" business concept means that multinational brands such as Coca-Cola and McDonalds foster familiarity where previously there was none. Needless to say that the etymological closeness between "family" and "familiar" is no accident. The estrangement felt by foreigners in a foreign land is, thus, alleviated, as the world is fast becoming mono-cultural.
The "Family of Man" and the "Global Village" have replaced the nuclear family and the physical, historic, village. A businessman feels more at home in any Sheraton or Hilton than in the living room of his ageing parents. An academician feels more comfortable in any faculty in any university than with his own nuclear or immediate family. One's old neighborhood is a source of embarrassment rather than a fount of strength.
The family's second function - leisure activities - fell prey to the advance of the internet and digital and wireless telecommunications.
Whereas the hallmark of the classical family was that it had clear spatial and temporal coordinates – the virtual family has none. Its members can (and often do) live in different continents. They communicate by digital means. They have electronic mail (rather than the physical post office box). They have a "HOME page". They have a "webSITE".
In other words, they have the virtual equivalents of geographical reality, a "VIRTUAL reality" or "virtual existence". In the not so distant future, people will visit each other electronically and sophisticated cameras will allow them to do so in three-dimensional format.
The temporal dimension, which was hitherto indispensable in human interactions – being at the same place in the same time in order to interact - is also becoming unnecessary. Voicemail and videomail messages will be left in electronic "boxes" to be retrieved at the convenience of the recipient. Meetings in person will be made redundant with the advent of video-conferencing.
The family will not remain unaffected. A clear distinction will emerge between the biological family and the virtual family. A person will be born into the first but will regard this fact as accidental. Blood relations will count less than virtual relations. Individual growth will involve the formation of a virtual family, as well as a biological one (getting married and having children). People will feel equally at ease anywhere in the world for two reasons:
1. There will be no appreciable or discernible difference between geographical locations. Separate will no longer mean disparate. A McDonald's and a Coca-Cola and a Hollywood produced movie are already available everywhere and always. So will the internet treasures of knowledge and entertainment.
2. Interactions with the outside world will be minimized. People will conduct their lives more and more indoors. They will communicate with others (their biological original family included) via telecommunications devices and the internet. They will spend most of their time, work and create in the cyber-world. Their true (really, only) home will be their website. Their only reliably permanent address will be their e-mail address. Their enduring friendships will be with co-chatters. They will work from home, flexibly and independently of others. They will customize their cultural consumption using 500 channel televisions based on video on demand technology.
Hermetic and mutually exclusive universes will be the end result of this process. People will be linked by very few common experiences within the framework of virtual communities. They will haul their world with them as they move about. The miniaturization of storage devices will permit them to carry whole libraries of data and entertainment in their suitcase or backpack or pocket.
It is true that all these predictions are extrapolations of technological breakthroughs and devices, which are in their embryonic stages and are limited to affluent, English-speaking, societies in the West. But the trends are clear and they mean ever-increasing differentiation, isolation and individuation. This is the last assault, which the family will not survive. Already most households consist of "irregular" families (single parents, same sex, etc.). The rise of the virtual family will sweep even these transitory forms aside.
The Role of Technology
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Technology had and has a devastating effect on the survival and functioning of core social units, such as the community/neighborhood and, most crucially, the family.
With the introduction of modern, fast transportation and telecommunications, it was no longer possible to confine the members of the family to the household, to the village, or even to the neighborhood. The industrial and, later information revolutions splintered the classical family and scattered its members as they outsourced the family's functions (such as feeding, education, and entertainment).
This process is on-going: interactions with the outside world are being minimized. People conduct their lives more and more indoors. They communicate with others (their biological original family included) via telecommunications devices and the internet. They spend most of their time, work and create in the cyber-world. Their true (really, only) home is their website or page on the social network du jour. Their only reliably permanent address is their e-mail address. Their enduring albeit ersatz friendships are with co-chatters. They work from home, flexibly and independently of others. They customize their cultural consumption using 500 channel televisions based on video on demand technology.
Hermetic and mutually exclusive universes will be the end result of this process. People will be linked by very few common experiences within the framework of virtual communities. They will haul their world with them as they move about. The miniaturization of storage devices will permit them to carry whole libraries of data and entertainment in their suitcase or backpack or pocket. They will no longer need or resort to physical interactions.
Screens have been with us for centuries now: paintings are screens and so are windows. Yet, the very nature of screens has undergone a revolutionary transformation in the last decade or so. All the screens that preceded the PDA’s (Personal Digital Assistant) and the smartphone’s were inclusive of reality, they were AND screens: when you watched them you could not avoid (“screen out”) data emanating from your physical environment. “Screen-AND-reality” was the prevalent modus operandi.
Consider the cinema, the television, and the personal computer (PC): even when entangled in the flow of information provided by these machines, you were still fully exposed to and largely aware of your surroundings. The screens of the past were one step removed: there was always a considerable physical distance between user and device and the field of vision extended to encompass copious peripheral input.
Now consider the iPhone or the digital camera: their screens, though tiny, monopolize the field of vision and exclude the world by design. The physical distance between retina and screen has shrunk to the point of vanishing. 3-D television with its specialty eyeglasses and total immersion is merely the culmination of this trend: the utter removal of reality from the viewer’s experience. Modern screens are, therefore, OR screens: you either watch the screen OR observe reality. You cannot do both.
Modern technology allows us to reach out, but rarely to truly touch. It substitutes kaleidoscopic, brief, and shallow interactions for long, meaningful and deep relationships. Our abilities to empathize and to collaborate with each other are like muscles: they require frequent exercise. Gradually, we are being denied the opportunity to flex them and, thus, we empathize less; we collaborate more fitfully and inefficiently; we act more narcissistically and antisocially. Functioning society is rendered atomized and anomic by technology.
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