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Posts Tagged ‘empathy’

I’ve never enjoyed Blade Runner, or anything by Philip K Dick. Which is probably heretical in some way; I don’t object to them or people who do enjoy them, they’ve just never landed with me.

I re-read Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep recently, and one thing I don’t get is why humanity gives a crap about tracking down and identifying the andys (or replicants) in the first place. Seriously, why does it matter? It doesn’t seem like they’re infiltrating us as the first phase of some kind of invasion plot; they’re not obviously physically superior to us, they don’t pose any particular threat. All they seem to want is to just get on with being alive and being treated as human, until they inevitably die in a couple of years anyway.

The differences between them and humans are made to sound deeply trivial, anyway. To tell them apart takes either a detailed bone marrow exam of some sort, or the Voight-Kampff empathy reflex test, which would surely produce wildly varying results for genuine humans anyway, and thus be unable to tell an android from just a common-or-garden sociopath.

So why does Deckard’s job exist? Why are substantial resources being spent on tracking, identifying, and eliminating andys at all, as well as continually researching superior methods for doing so? If they’re basically just people, why the fuck not let them get on with it? Why does the planet obsess over sorting them into the right category, so that we know whether they’re inhuman and must be exterminated?

There’s interesting ideas to explore there, about mankind’s insecurity, and why we feel the need to compulsively draw these boundaries to protect our sense of self, and the looming existential dread that we’d have to face up to if we acknowledged the way andys blur the bounds of what being human means. But exploring any of that doesn’t seem to be Dick’s point.

Later in the book, when one character feels empathy toward the plight of an android, they’re warned that this amounts to “reacting like they react”, and is taken as an unquestionably bad sign of some kind. But the idea that the natural human inclination is to feel empathy only toward other humans, and that we wouldn’t normally have the same feelings for a creature we know isn’t “really human”, is just bizarre. Humans will empathise with anything.

A single animation studio has, in the past couple of decades, made millions of people care deeply about plastic toys, insects, monsters that jump out of children’s cupboards to scare them, fish, robots, cars, and a bunch of vaguely person-shaped blobs representing anthropomorphised emotions, among many other non-human entities. Look at the human emotions and personalities the internet ascribes to cats, or sloths, or an elephant seal having its bucket stolen. We will attribute full agency and inappropriately gendered pronouns to a picture of a rock, and some of us will get tearful over how adorable it is if you give it googly eyes and a two-line tragic back-story.

I mean, it’s not like we wouldn’t find countless other ways to hate and dehumanise androids, however much like us they are. Just look at our track record of treating actual human people like shit. But the universally accepted obviousness of eliminating them for not being quite human enough was just another thing that felt unconvincing.

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To nobody’s surprise, I consider it important to be able to empathise with people around us, especially those who are “different”.

It’s something where I try to walk the walk as much as I talk the talk, with varying success. There are a lot of ways in which I do pretty well at accepting and delighting in other people’s differences. The convention I went to on my honeymoon had a fair complement of transgender folk, gay people, bronies, steampunkaholics, to name but a few. I’m not in any of those categories myself; they’re all distinctly different from me in certain ways, but not in a way that presents any problem for me to interact positively with them.

That’s not true for everyone. There are people who are homophobic, or otherwise similarly prejudiced, and who would have been affronted and angered at the very existence of many people I shared a hotel with that weekend.

Comparing myself against them, I come off pretty well. I get to pat myself on the back for being fairly forward-thinking and progressive. But that’s not the most useful comparison I could be making.

I mean, if you’re a gay man who basically likes people and thinks we should all be kind to each other, we’re not really that different. Our values probably overlap a lot, in more interesting and important ways than that one divergent factor of sexuality. It’s pretty easy for us to see each other as part of our respective in-groups.

But the people with whom my interactions are more interesting – the people who provide my loving and compassionate nature with an actual challenge – are the ones who think homosexuality is an abomination unto the Lord, and all fags are going to burn in Hell.

Or who think those freaks getting sex changes need the devil beaten out of them.

Or who think atheists are all immoral Satan worshippers.

Or who think mainstream scientists are part of an academic conspiracy to push their fabricated global warming agenda onto a nation of sheeple.

Or who think they’ve uncovered the evidence left behind by the shadowy organisation who orchestrated 9/11 as part of a plot to bring about a New World Order.

Or who think Sylvia Browne has given them messages from their deceased relatives, and that it’s such a shame how closed-minded skeptics can’t accept anything that goes against their inflexible, set-in-stone ideas of how the world works.

Or who eat Marmite.

You get the picture.

Those are my out-groups. Being nice to gay people is easy. This is where my mettle’s really tested.

If I’m going to claim to be any better at dealing compassionately with others than your average hateful, gay-bashing preacher, then it’s my interactions with these people – the ones whose values truly differ from mine, who are truly “other” to me – which I should be judged by.

It’s no good if I’m lovely to people who are part of my tribe, but sarcastic and contemptuous to any outsiders. That’s exactly the behaviour I complain about in others. It’s just that for them, the outsiders are gay people, atheists, or whoever. For me, the outsider is anyone with an irrational hatred of gay people, atheists, or whoever.

So those are the people I need to try to treat respectfully, if I’m going to be at all consistent. If I start being a dick to someone, it doesn’t get cancelled out if I can prove they started being hateful first.

My in-group values being nice to people, and I will tribalistically defend our values just as vehemently as you’ll defend yours. Because if you don’t share our values of being nice to people then you’re WRONG and we HATE you.

That’s the danger that’s too often missed. Treating kindly those people who are different is the precise thing you’re trying to encourage in others. Being hostile to someone whose main difference from you is that they don’t want to treat other people kindly, is entirely self-defeating.

Yep, I seem to be drawing another lesson from Jesus here. Two in a week. Love your enemy. If I make it three, call an exorcist.

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A brief rationalist take on yesterday’s glurge:

A lot of it comes down to fundamental attribution error, of course. When I make a mistake, or do something that might seem rude or insensitive or otherwise negative, I’m aware of all the extenuating circumstances. I let myself off because I was tired or stressed from dealing with so much other shit, or because the blame can be pinned on something else in the world… any excuse as to why it doesn’t really count.

But when someone else cocks up, obviously they’re an incompetent asshole.

We don’t live in other people’s heads, so we aren’t naturally inclined to make all the same excuses for them as we do for ourselves. And we don’t feel their emotions to anything like the same extent they do, either.

When somebody else is suffering, or delighted, or in pain, or giddy with adulation, I might experience a surge of the same emotion on their behalf. My mirror neurons will start flapping away (neurons totally flap, ask any scientonomer) and encouraging me to empathise and bond with my fellow species-member.

But when there’s especially intense emotion, that just can’t come close to matching the experience of actually going through it. Even if you’ve seen either people in profound emotional highs or lows, it doesn’t intuitively feel like what they’re going through is really real. Your friend’s drama only impacted on you a little, nothing like what you’re experiencing now, so yours must be more real, more deep and profound. They were just moping and wailing, they can’t have felt it as strongly as you are now.

Except there’s every reason to suppose that they do. And your intensity of experience is just as inaccessible to them, but no less real for it.

Now that I’ve written all that, I’m not sure it adds very much.

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A very quick thought which doesn’t change the basic gist of yesterday’s post.

There’s a lot of online activism which encourages people to support good causes which don’t directly affect them. I don’t just mean things like donating money to people in distant, famine-struck lands, but causes which affect only a subset of our fellows, and so aren’t really on our radar so much.

One obvious example is the effort to provoke men to take an interest in issues that primarily affect women, such as abortion, female genital mutilation, or domestic violence.

A common piece of rhetoric employed to this end is: What if it happened to someone you know, or your daughter, or your sister, or your mother? What if the victim of some atrocity you’re currently unaware of was someone close to you?

You should care, because it could be your daughter.

While the conditional clause may technically be true, the reasoning is problematic. The fact that your daughter could be the victim of something horrible isn’t the reason you should want to stop horrible things.

The reason you should want to stop horrible things, is that the way you feel when you imagine horrible things happening to your daughter, is the way you should feel about horrible things happening to anyone.

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