At the Western Province versus Blue Bulls rugby game on Saturday (which I attended with my dad and one of his friends), I got smacked on the head by an over-zealous Blue Bulls fan. It happened like this. On the way into the stadium, I got caught up in the crush of fans waiting to be searched for weapons. As we waited our turn to be patted down, the fans with the WP jerseys inevitably started taunting the fans with the Blue Bulls jerseys.
One inebriated WP fan with no front teeth and a little daughter in tow would lean into the face of a female Blue Bulls fan and shout “WP jou lekker ding!” (WP you lovely thing!) while another man took a placard with “PROVINCE” on it and kept shoving it right in front of her eyes. She kept ignoring the chants and knocking the placard out of the way with her hand. In front of her a woman in a Springbok rugby jersey bobbed up and down as she faced the other fan and joined in the chorus of “WP jou lekker ding”.
Then Ms Blue Bulls got hold of her team’s flag and started waving it around, knocking the placard out of the way each time the drunken WP fan put it right in front of her face. Somewhere in the melee, she also managed to smack me on the head with it. Already annoyed at being caught up in this little scene, I caught the flag and muttered “moenie my slaan nie” (don’t hit me) before managing to get away. The Blue Bulls fan looked momentarily embarrassed at having hit me and then continued waving her flag.
Now I mention this little incident because it seems to represent, on a very small scale, a lack of empathy. Not the hitting on the head perhaps (because that was an accident) but the drunken taunting of an opposing fan. As I’m typing this I realise that I could well have misread the situation entirely. Perhaps the Blue Bulls woman thrived on the attention she got but I found it quite annoying that the WP fans seemed to enjoy her discomfort. They had a captive audience and they were not going to miss out on having their bit of fun.
What I’m leading up to here is a broader discussion on the lack of empathy generally, particularly in South Africa.
Washington-based psychotherapist Douglas LaBier wrote an interesting article a while back on what he calls Empathy Deficit Disorder. It’s not something you’ll find in the DSM but it’s surprisingly common and is associated with many mental illnesses, especially the personality disorders, autism and schizophrenia.
Empathy is something that’s largely ignored in the popular media (or at least our popular media). On Friday a colleague was telling me about an interesting presentation on empathy, ‘mirror neurons’ and gender differences. Basically the study found that women have a far greater capacity for empathy than men, regardless of whether the person they observed was considered ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Men on the other hand actually took delight in the pain of those they considered ‘bad’. I could see this played out on Saturday at the local rugby game. A player on ‘our’ team gets hurt and we feel his pain whereas if an opposing player goes down in a crunching tackle, all the home fans cheer with delight. Now I’m not suggesting that they want to see him stretchered off the field but I’m always amazed at how South Africans in particular take delight in the setbacks of opposing teams. If the Aussie cricket and rugby teams are doing badly, the average South African sports fan will be puffed up with glee. And then they will feel crushed and rather depressed when their team loses. I just don’t get it. Hence my surprise this Saturday when the Aussies whalloped the Springboks and everyone got rather glum about it. It was just one game and the Springboks are still favourites to take the Tri-Nations so why not feel happy for a resurgent and very talented young Aussie team?
But that’s just sport. On Sunday P and I took a walk around our local supermarket – not the one we usually go to but the one that’s closest to our house. The lack of common courtesy, sensitivity or even awareness of the personal space of others came as a bit of a shock to me. Now I will often accidentally bump into people and apologise but your average shopper seems solely focused on their objective and oblivious to anyone else. They won’t even look at you while they effectively push you out of the way and there are very few smiles or acknowledgements of others’ emotions (and you’ll be lucky if you get a few words out of the cashier as well).
It’s easy to generalise this to society as a whole but it does strike me that apartheid was a fundamental lack of empathy towards the ‘other’ to an astonishing degree, justified in the name of ‘science’ and rationality. Terms such as ‘separate development’ and ‘racial differences’ were used to justify why those with the power (whites) should basically exploit those of ‘other races’ for their own advantage. I’m simplifying here but that’s what it seems to come down to. Is it any wonder that the ‘formerly disadvantaged’ (as well as the formerly advantaged) display an alarming lack of empathy in the form of a violence and abuse?
EDD develops when people focus too much on acquiring power, status and money for themselves at the expense of developing … healthy relationships. Nearly every day we hear or read about people who have been derailed by the pursuit of money and recognition and end up in rehab or behind bars. But many of the people I see, whether therapy patients or career and business clients, struggle with their own versions of the same thing. They have become alienated from their own hearts and equate what they have with who they are.
So what’s the solution? LaBier suggests that …
Just as you can develop EDD by too much self-absorption, you can also overcome EDD by retraining your brain to take advantage of what is known as neuroplasticity. … […] By focusing on developing empathy, you can deepen your understanding and acceptance of how and why people do what they do and you can build respect for others. This doesn’t mean that you are whitewashing the differences you have with other people or letting them walk over you. Rather, empathy gives you a stronger, wiser base for resolving conflicts and trumps self-centered, knee-jerk reactions to surface differences.
I also think we need a concerted approach to teach empathy as part of the curriculum and we need to elect public officials who display this quality. And, more generally, I’d like to see a greater awareness that South Africans as a whole need to work on this if we’re to have a more healthy, happy society.