A Case for Empathy

A couple friends sent me a fantastic NY Times article by Nicholas Kristof, called “Where Is The Love”.  In it, Kristof addresses the “widespread scorn” and lack of empathy that is shown for the less fortunate in our country.  He writes that “A Princeton University psychology professor, Susan Fiske, has found that when research subjects hooked up to neuro-imaging machines look at photos of the poor and homeless, their brains often react as if they are seeing things, not people. Her analysis suggests that Americans sometimes react to poverty not with sympathy but with revulsion.”

This is a phenomenon that I have considered for a long time.  American society promotes a cultural narrative of “if you work hard enough, you will be successful”.   We see this in the “self-made man” stories.  With such a national emphasis on this narrative, I often hear the belief expressed that the inverse is also true: “if you do not succeed, it is because you did not work hard enough”.

We hear statements like “You are responsible for your results.”  And, “The only thing that stands between you and what you want in life is the will to try it and the faith to believe it possible.”  These two sentiments (and the overall narrative) are problematic for me because they discount the impact that structure (social, economic, educational, cultural, etc) has on the process and the outcome.

If we take two individuals from completely opposite ends of the American social structure (high socioeconomic status, low socioeconomic status) we cannot deny that there is often a substantive difference in the opportunities presented to each student and the subsequent outcomes.  I would propose that much of the difference results from the structure in which we function.

Even if the same opportunity is presented to each individual (although we know that not everyone has equal opportunities), the person with a lower socioeconomic status might have serious doubt about the viability of the opportunity (quite often based on past experiences) and would quite possibly face structural obstacles to taking advantage of that opportunity.   Given this, I would strongly object to a blanket judgement that if a goal is not reached, the effort, will, or faith of the individual was lacking.

I absolutely agree with Kristof’s statement, “As we celebrate Thanksgiving, let’s remember that the difference between being surrounded by a loving family or being homeless on the street is determined not just by our own level of virtue or self-discipline, but also by an inextricable mix of luck, biography, brain chemistry and genetics.”



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