Writer, journalist, disability advocate; blogger for Psychology Today
Writer, journalist; contributor to n+1, The Brooklyn Rail, and Modern Painters
G. Anthony Gorry
Professor of Computer Science at Rice University and Professor of Neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine
Professor of Biology at the University of Chicago; author of Medical Neurobiology
At the end of a semester, my favorite drama teacher called us all together and had a conversation with the class. Outside of our class, she’d been mentoring a young man, teaching him a curriculum parallel to ours. However, she wanted to start including this young man, offering him the same experience as the rest of us. This meant following the typical final exam format: a realistic audition experience, with an audience.
I remember being very anxious the day he was scheduled to perform his audition. I knew nothing about him, except that he was different and that was enough to make me afraid. I viewed him as “other.” When he came through the door, I found myself backing away—both emotionally and physically.
Why was I afraid? My teacher had told us he was autistic. I didn’t know what that meant. It’s ironic when I think about it now. I was afraid of him for something we both shared, but which as yet had remained unnamed in me.
During Thursday afternoon’s live chat, one of the participants asked about teaching empathy. If empathy occurs automatically via societal mechanism, why should there be a need? This experience, to me, illustrates part of the answer to this question. Even when biological mechanisms urge us toward a specific behavior, other forces can intervene.
Empathy is often impacted by one’s own frame of reference, and the complex needs and abilities that make up each individual. Teaching empathy helps us to develop the skills and awareness to effectively counteract the factors that distort perception. It helps us to consciously shape the way we relate to others.
As we’ve seen from this week’s discussion, empathy is an intricate and multifaceted concept. It undergirds a lot of critical aspects of our experience. As a consumer, empathy can shape how one perceives a company and its employees. Empathy can be the difference between a positive health outcome and a negative one. Empathy can also be the difference between seeing a person as human or as something less.
We’ve explored myriad ways in which empathy can be evoked. A smile in a crowded hallway. Listening to someone speak. Reading a story. Having a conversation.
We’ve talked about technology, and how it impacts empathy. Does it create distance or bring us together? When it brings us together, does it do so in the same ways? I thought about this last night, when a friend posted a link on Facebook.
The link told the story of Balpreet Kaur. As a Sikh woman, her religious beliefs prohibit her from trimming or removing her facial hair, so she has a noticeable beard. Recently, she was unknowingly photographed, and the photograph was posted on a social media site, Reddit, under the heading “Funny.” Then the mocking began.
This decidedly unempathic action was turned entirely on its ear when Ms. Kaur decided to weigh in on the conversation. She didn’t swear at them, or insult them. She responded with empathy. Her gracious and informative response led to a reciprocal outpouring of empathy in return, including the man who posted the photograph. As of writing this post, there are 1,374 responses to the thread. The tide has turned in her favor.
We wonder if technology is increasing or decreasing levels of empathy. But perhaps, as Ms. Kaur has shown us, it’s not the medium itself. It’s how we use it that matters.