Rugby, apartheid and Empathy Deficit Disorder

September 7, 2009

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?

LaBier says:

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.

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Learning from Barack: Anger, Empathy, Community

November 21, 2008

Reading Parts 2 and 3 of Dreams From My Father, I was struck by the power of anger as a force for change, Obama’s capacity to learn and grow out of adversity and the intertwining of the personal and the political. Barack’s experiences as a community organiser in the South Side of Chicago in the mid-1980s provide a few hints of the powerful political figure to come but the lasting impression for me was how an accumulation of small changes can make a big difference.

I was impressed with Obama’s honesty, his determination, his willingness to learn from people and his ability to integrate the diverse strands of his experience (Hawaiian, Indonesian, white, black, African, American) into a meaningful whole. For a start, there’s the interconnectedness of education, health, crime, the economy, identity. One moving scene towards the end sees a solitary Barack sitting in a packed Chicago church listening to the charismatic African-American preacher Jeremiah Wright give a sermon on the “audacity of hope”. The boy next to him nudges his arm and hands him a tissue, at which point Barack realises that he has tears running down his cheeks. In the context of his Chicago community work it makes a lot of sense and seems to mark a moment of emotional homecoming and integration.

On a personal level, the young Barack reminded me a lot of my friend Kevin R. A young American volunteer from Washington DC, Kevin came out to South Africa in the mid-90s to volunteer for a year at a black school in Limpopo province. He was tall, good-looking, confident, had a way with languages (he was half-Italian) and full of ideas. Like Barack, he grew up with his mother who encouraged him and his sister to travel back to Italy once a year to keep his ties with his father’s family alive. Kevin was smooth like Barack and had a way with women which I envied.

Kevin and I finished up our work in Limpopo at the same time and he came to stay with me in Cape Town before boarding a yacht to sail across to South America. Like the young Barack, Kevin had a yearning for his dad, who now lived in Brazil, and this was a good way of making his way back to America. I lost contact with him but I’m sure he made good. Probably not quite as good as Barack but he was headed for a good grad school and then a job with the UN, the World Food Programme or the EU.

Like Kevin, the young Barack had drive, curiosity, empathy, a sharp intellect, and a dissatisfaction which drove him on. Obama also has a great way of telling stories — you’re right there with him in the South Side of Chicago, noticing the sweat on the necks of the old men playing cards, breathing in the polluted air and feeling the cold wind blow about your ears.

One phrase that stood out for me was “a capacity for outrage”. He describes community workers worn down by the system who’ve lost the capacity for harnessing the anger that you need to make things happen.

There are many lessons to be learned in this autobiography. For a start I’m wondering about anger as a positive force for change, and the delicate balance between anger, empathy and hope. A few quotes to finish off with:

On community: “… communities had to be created, fought for, tended like gardens”.
On anger: “… anger’s a requirement for the job” (his first boss giving him advice)
On community work: “… getting to the centre of people’s lives”.
On black identity: “… are you surprised black people still hate themselves?”


Empathy and the Novel

September 22, 2008

This is a huge topic and I feel quite over-awed just approaching it. There’s so much to say and quite a few people have given excellent suggestions to me already (see previous posts). Perhaps a good place to start is with a quote from Joyce Carol Oates (courtesy of pages turned’s blog): “Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.”

Since reading involves an active imagining of someone else’s world, the links and parallels with empathy are many. Interestingly, in “Empathy and the Novel” (2007), Suzanne Keen argues that while novelists use empathy both as a narrative strategy and a subject of their novels, and clearly engage strong affective responses in their readers, this does not necessarily translate into altruistic behaviour.

Empathy robustly enters into affective responses to fiction, but its proper role in shaping the behaviour of emotional readers has been debated for three centuries. Keen surveys these debates and offers a series of hypotheses about literary empathy, including narrative techniques inviting empathetic response. She argues that above all readers’ perception of a text’s fictiveness increases the likelihood of readers’ empathy, by releasing readers from their guarded responses to the demands of real others. She confirms the centrality of narrative empathy as a strategy, as well as a subject, of contemporary novelists. (book blurb, my emphasis)

This echoes other research findings on empathy and the movies, that (low empathy) men are far more likely to enjoy a movie (and empathise with the characters) if they perceive the characters as fictional rather than based on real life. I think real life brings a lot more anxiety into play, such as fears that people will make real-life demands on you for time and attention / affection / money. Fiction allows us to relax and engage “softer” (less guarded) emotions.

I also wanted to quote from Litlove’s post on Josipovici the other day:

…. once again the notion of being in the same place as a fundamental prerequisite for sympathy is raised. We might need to be in the same geographical space to coincide with an event in a different historical time, or we might need to make the imaginative leap to the same mindset as another person, to understand an enigmatic point of view, but true sympathy demands that we change places, that we move ourselves either physically or mentally into another realm altogether, so that the same perspective might be shared. And the point of doing this, Josipovici seems to suggest (to me at least) is that this whole awkward business of moving and mental shape-shifting is one of the basic and most admirable building blocks of love.

I like the way that empathy (or sympathy here) is a building-block of love. From a purely psychological perspective, that links up to the point that empathy is a necessary but not sufficient condition for therapeutic change. Being able to enter into the thoughts and feelings of another doesn’t mean that you will be acting compassionately towards them. Hunters will tell you that they try to think like their prey, much like a good detective will try and imagine herself into the mind of the criminal. (What did they think or feel when they were standing there under that tree, looking up at the house?) Stalkers are particularly creepy because they get into your mind and you have no idea what their intentions might be. This has relevance to therapy because sometimes, if the therapist is not sensitive to how they are being perceived, the client might see the therapist as hunting them and trying to exploit their vulnerability.

So perhaps (in agreement with openpalm) I’m saying that empathy is not enough. There needs to be compassion (or love) as well. Valerie Stone (an Australian psychologist) writes about how humans use their well-developed intellectual abilities for compassion or cruelty, and how language is used to construct (or symbolise) the world in such a way that provides an outlet for kind or cruel feelings.

Cruelty is what happens when we use our symbolic capacity to define another person as ‘the enemy’, and use theory of mind and executive function to plan an outlet for our ancient instincts for aggression. Compassion is what happens when we use our symbolic capacity to define another person as part of our in-group, and use our theory of mind and executive function to plan ways to benefit them, using ancient instincts for empathy.

I’ll have to develop these ideas a bit more during the course of the week, if patient admin allows. I’d be interested to read (online at Google books) more of what Keen has to say. She quotes Little Women for a start (which I’ve never read) and then readers’ responses to Middlemarch (which I have). I liked the reference to Cassaubon coming up with a theory that tries to link everything together. Sometimes I feel that way about empathy.


Empathy at the movies

September 12, 2008

It’s Friday night and I’m off to a not-so-nearby couch for whatever P can rustle up on the VCR (yes, sadly her TV is not DVD-friendly). A quick search of my parents’ upstairs sitting room shows up some old cassettes – a few episodes of Rumpole, Tubby Custard Footprints and The Madness of King George. Being a conscientious empathy blogger, I feel the need to offer some related movie ideas. What would you suggest?

The first one that springs to mind is a film which my therapist told me go and see for homework. (Well it wasn’t exactly homework but she did recommend it.) As it is in Heaven is one of those movies that people rave about, and the reference to empathy is that the main character (a famous musician who returns to his childhood village) needs to empathise with himself and revisit his childhood (at least in his memories) in order to heal himself emotionally.

Movie No. 2 provides an excellent example of non-empathy in the figure of Jack Nicholson’s character in As Good as it Gets. It’s also a great film to watch if you like Helen Hunt, are interested in OCD (obessive-compulsive disorder) or just like cute dogs.

I’ll expand on this theme next Friday with some ideas about “chick-flicks” and other movies. I’m also trying to decide what I think around empathy and sex differences (women tend to have high empathy, men low empathy). For a start here is a quote from Helena Cronin from the Darwin Centre at the LSE:

Because, if you reproduce sexually, you must divide your reproductive efforts between competing for mates and caring for offspring.

Males specialise more in competing, females more in caring. So in humans, as in all other sexual species, males are shaped by all-out competing, females by committed caring – from brains to bodies to behaviour. So the question to ask about a species is never: are there evolved sex differences? The question is always: what exactly do the differences look like in this species?


On Empathy

September 10, 2008


I’ve decided to make September empathy month here at the Couch Trip. We’ll see how far I get with that but I’ve definitely got a few posts on this topic. For starters I was wondering whether the words “fun” and “empathy” can exist in the same sentence. Is empathy just serious or can it be sexy?

I was thinking yesterday about a case from last year. A young girl (in her teens) was referred to me for a cognitive assessment to help with school placement. On the intelligence test she scored in the “Cognitively Handicapped” range but there was a very big discrepancy between her Verbal and Performance IQs. Her Verbal IQ was basically terrible while her performance in the non-verbal tests was significiantly better. She was very anxious and she was, to use the language of Klein or Winnicott, very caught up in her internal world. My heart went out to her and I really wanted to help if I could but there wasn’t much that I could do. We did the assessment and I wrote up my report (recommending she be transferred to a more technical school, but also that she receive therapy and that her mother attend parental guidance classes and also therapy of her own). Remembering the case, I feel a bit sad. Perhaps I identify with the teenager caught up in their internal world and needing a helping hand to build more meaningful relationships.

There are many aspects of empathy that I’d like to mention. I initially got on to the topic by looking at violence. In August I opened a file on my computer called ‘Violence Research’ and started filling it with articles on “Freud and Violence” and so on. But after about two weeks of this, I realised that I was very possibly missing the point. Violence (like evil) flourishes in the absence of empathy. Shouldn’t we rather focus on the empathy (and the lack thereof) rather than on the violence? I liked what Barack Obama said about the “empathy deficit” being a problem that should receive as much attention as the budget deficit. (What a pity if the polls are right and the Republicans win once again.)

And, following Arthur Saltzman, I would love to make this topic dance, to come alive. But as with the issue of sanity (which Adam Phillips made so interesting in Going Sane), I think the issue of empathy could do with a makeover. So where to begin?

Yesterday my group had a really good discussion about empathy and our poet-priest reminded us of Agape (unconditional love) as well as introducing us to a Tonglan meditation, which effectively asked us to “breathe in the pain” and “open your heart-mind”.

I like this poem by the Canadian poet Carmine Starnino called ‘The Last Days’ (posted by Alex Boyd at The Danforth Review) :
When the nurse let go, my aunt
stood there, disoriented, swaying a little
from side to side, and we understood
that for one more day she had been
returned to us, her body given back
to the world. My uncle, waiting behind her,
smiled with the excitement of a father
watching his daughter’s first steps
as my aunt tottered toward the vase
of flowers by the window, taking one step
then another, squinting into the sunlight
that warmed the hospital room, filling it
with the rich fragrance of lilac.

Carl Rogers talks about empathy as a “way of being” rather than doing. And then I’m reading about Winnicott (Adam P again). Here’s Winnicott on imagination: “A sign of health in the mind is the ability of one individual to enter imaginatively and accurately into the thoughts and feelings and hopes and fears of another person; also to allow the other person to do the same to us … ” Doesn’t that sound a bit like blogging? Perhaps blogging could be promoted as a way to cultivate inter-subjective empathy?

By the way the picture at the top refers to walking around in someone else’s shoes (photo by PataGata at Flickr). Another image that I think would work is a Mark Rothko print. Very New York psychotherapist’s office.

Lastly, another quote from Alex Boyd’s excellent article in TDR. Here he quotes Alden Nowland’s “Johnnie’s Poem”

Look! I’ve written a poem!
Johnnie says
and hands it to me
and it’s about
his grandfather dying
last summer, and me
in the hospital
and I want to cry,
don’t you see, because it doesn’t matter
if it’s not very good:
what matters is he knows
and it was me, his father, who told him
you write poems about what
you feel deepest and hardest.