Toward Institutionalized Empathy

I originally drafted this post exactly a year ago, right after the Paris attacks. I didn’t post it then because I thought it would be too inflammatory, and I was honestly just too sad. I didn’t feel like getting into an Internet Argument. I still think it’s true, though, and think it’s worth saying even though I’m sure there are plenty of people out there just waiting to ignore the nuances. Either way, here it is.


Since Paris was attacked on Friday night, my Facebook feed has exploded with posts about how fundamentally unjust it is that Americans are so upset about this event, but they weren’t upset the day before when Beirut was attacked.

While I think it’s an argument more persuasively made later, when emotions are not quite so high, I do understand the impulse behind it: There is an inherently dehumanizing aspect to feeling more empathy for some and less empathy for others, and we know where dehumanization leads.

However, the virulence of these posts prevented me from showing solidarity with the people in Paris for fear of the flak I would get for NOT having shown the same solidarity with the people of Beirut the day before. And that just means less empathy and less solidarity to go around.

In actuality, my empathy for Parisians is not a sign of my lack of empathy for the people of Beirut. In fact, it’s a sign of my normal, if lamentable, neurology.

Before I continue, let me take a moment to unequivocally state the obvious: The life of a person in Beirut is not fundamentally or objectively worth more or less than the life of a person in Paris.

While there’s some disagreement on the exact number, current science suggests each human can only see between 150 and 300 other humans as fully developed, complex individuals. This limitation clearly comes with some dire consequences – hate crimes and genocide defining the far end of the spectrum, nimbyism and neglect covering the nearer end. However, it is practical from an evolutionary perspective.

In order to survive as a social species, we each need to know and care about the people upon whom we most depend for survival. In an abstract sense, in a modern world, that group could include some complete strangers on the far side of the planet. But even now, even with the Internet and a globalized economy, one’s in-group is still mostly populated by the people who are geographically and culturally proximate – our families, our neighbors, the people we went to school with, the people we work with, etc.

Let’s take me as an example. I know people in France. I have been to France. If there is another language I come close to being able to speak besides English, it’s French. The victims of the crimes in Paris were doing things I do on the regular: I go to rock shows of the Eagles of Death Metal sort, I sit outside on patios at restaurants eating dinner. I don’t frequent huge sporting events, but I’ve been to a few.

Beirut, on the other hand, is slightly further outside my usual sphere. I know people who were born in Lebanon, and still others who have visited Lebanon, but not anyone who currently lives there. Since Beirut is a modern city, I can imagine that the lives of its residents are largely like my life, but I don’t know that viscerally from having seen it or from knowing people who are currently living it.

That said, my visceral reaction to hearing the news about Paris on Friday differed from my reaction to hearing about Beirut on Thursday because of Paris’s societal proximity to my life. I don’t think that’s wrong. I think it’s the emotional reality of a human existence for most people most of the time.

What is wrong is preventing people from expressing empathy by making them feel that their empathy is misplaced or fundamentally bad in some way. We need more empathy in this world, not less, and it’s not a finite resource.

What’s even more wrong is to ignore the reality of our biases – to pretend humans are fundamentally different than we are – and thereby to inhibit our ability to mitigate or overcome those biases. Simply asserting one should, at root, care equally about strangers as one does about friends does not make that any more practically possible than it already is. However, if we accept that it isn’t possible through sheer will, then we can start to build structures and institutions to counterbalance them.

It’s only because we know we’re forgetful that we keep to-do lists and calendars. We could pretend that it’s possible for a human being to just remember everything, or we can accept our limitations and build structures in life to mitigate them.

Likewise, only when we’re able to honestly see and confront our tribal biases can we start to support the work that takes care of the people outside of our tribe – because they deserve it. Their lives are worth just as much.

Toward Institutionalized Empathy

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