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Jeremy Rifkin

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'Empathic Civilization': Why Have We Become So Uncivil?

Posted: 02/08/10 07:30 AM ET

In the past two weeks, President Obama has made an unprecedented plea for civility in public discourse. Washington insiders say they can't ever recall a period in American public life as full of anger and polarization as now. TV and radio talk show hosts, in particular, have fanned the flames of hatred with occasional outrageous personal attacks on public figures and advocates of policy agendas with which they disagree. If we continue along this toxic road, it could lead to unfathomable damage to the American psyche. The question is "Why is The United States becoming so uncivil"?

When we talk about civility, we are really talking about empathy: the willingness to listen to another's point of view, to put one's self in another's shoes and to emotionally and cognitively experience what they are feeling and thinking. To civilize is to empathize.

Below all of the fiery rhetoric and finger pointing, the acid comments and degrading personal attacks, is a deep-seated fear and mistrust of the "the other"- in other words, a lack of empathy.

My sense is that the fear that is spreading like a wild fire across America is due, in large part, to a seismic shift occurring in our thinking about the most cherished values of American life: our notions of freedom, equality, and democracy. In other words, what we are really discussing- underneath the surface of the political and ideological debates- are our beliefs about the basic drives and aspirations of human beings.

Freedom in the nation state era has been closely associated with the ability to control one's labor and secure one's property, because that is the way to optimize pleasure and be happy. The classical economists argued that every individual is free to the extent he or she can pursue their individual self- interest in the material world. Freedom, in the rational mode, is the freedom to be autonomous and independent and to be an island to one's self. To be free is to be rational, detached, acquisitive, and utilitarian. The role of government, in turn, is to safeguard private property relations and allow market forces to operate, unfettered by political constraints. The conventional American dream is personal opportunity to succeed in the marketplace.

The empathic approach to freedom in the emerging Biosphere Age is based on a different premise. Freedom means being able to optimize the full potential of one's life, and the fulfilled life is one of companionship, affection, and belonging, made possible by ever deeper and more meaningful personal experiences and relationships with others--across neighborhoods, continents and the world. One is free, then, to the extent that one has been nurtured and raised in a global society that allows for empathetic opportunities at every level of human discourse. The new dream is the quality of life of humanity.

The litmus test for which definition of freedom is more salient is the deathbed judgment. When looking back on one's life, few would measure the meaning of their existence in terms of the money they amassed or the autonomy they achieved. In fact, as we've learned, greater wealth and autonomy tend to isolate one from meaningful relationships with others. Our lived reality becomes more insular and restricted and our lives more lonely. When near death, most people reminisce about the experiences of deep connections they had with others-- family, friends, and colleagues. It is the empathetic moments in one's life that are the most powerful memories and the experiences that comfort and give a sense of connection, participation, and meaning to one's sojourn.

These two very distinct ideas about freedom are accompanied by two very different ideas about the nature of strength and what it means to be courageous. When we think of freedom, we generally associate it with being independent. We go so far as to equate freedom with invulnerability, the totally self- contained person glorified in the sagas of the American frontier. The pioneers, mountain men, and cowboys, who set out alone to tame the wilderness, are romanticized as truly free spirits.

The empathic school takes a different approach, asserting that real freedom requires that one exercise vulnerability rather than invulnerability. If freedom is the ability to live out the full potential of one's possibilities and if the measure of one's life is the intimacy, range, and diversity of one's relationships, then the more vulnerable one is, the more open he or she will be to creating meaningful and intimate relationships with others. Vulnerable in this sense does not mean being weak, a victim or prey but, rather, being open to communication at the deepest level of human exchange.

To be vulnerable is to trust one's fellow human beings. Trust is the belief that others will treat you as an end not as a means, that you will not be used or manipulated to serve the expedient motives of others but regarded as a valued being. When one is treated by others as an end, not as a means, one becomes truly free. One can't really be free in a world where everyone mistrusts each other. In such a world, freedom is immediately reduced to a negative, the ability to close oneself off from others and be an island unto oneself. Authoritarian societies that promote paranoia and mistrust and pit each against the other, squash the spirit of freedom.

The idea of freedom has also historically gone in tandem with the idea of equality. The American and French revolutionaries viewed the two ideas as inextricably linked. They became the alpha and omega of the New Order of the Ages. Equality, in the rationalist mode, is a calculable legal phenomenon. Laws are enacted to guarantee political sovereignty, individual civil rights, and market access.

The empathic philosophers define equality more in psychological terms. They ask how one comes to think of others as equal to themselves and vice versa. They view empathetic extension as the great leveler, the force that breaks down the myriad forms of status and distinctions that separate people into subjects and objects. They remind us that as long as equality is narrowly measured in material terms--the opportunity to succeed in the marketplace, even if it's by merit rather than by hereditary claims--the end result will always be defined in terms of "mine" versus "thine." Wealth and professional and academic distinctions will continue to create status distinctions and divide one from another.

Empathic extension is the only human expression that creates true equality between people. When one empathizes with another, distinctions begin to melt away. The very act of identifying with another's struggle as if it were one's own is the ultimate expression of a sense of equality. One can't really empathize unless one's being is on the same emotional plane as another. If someone feels superior or inferior in status to another and therefore different and alien, it becomes difficult to experience their plight or joy as one's own. One might feel sympathetic to others or feel sorry for them or take pity on them, but to experience real empathy for another requires feeling and responding "as if " you "are" that person.

That doesn't mean that empathetic moments erase status and distinctions. It only means that in the moment one extends the empathic embrace, the other social barriers--wealth, education, and professional status--are temporarily suspended in the act of experiencing, comforting, and supporting another's struggle as if their life were one's own. The feeling of equality being expressed is not about equal legal rights or economic entitlements but the idea that another being is just like us in being unique and mortal and deserving of the right to prosper.

Status hierarchies are, of course, designed to create inequalities. Status is about rankings and the claiming of authority over others. Every society establishes various boundaries of exclusion. A highly stratified society generally is low on empathetic consciousness because such societies are segmented between so many status categories that the ability to empathize beyond one's own group, both up and down the hierarchy, is limited.

The ability to recognize oneself in the other and the other in oneself is a deeply democratizing experience. Empathy is the soul of democracy. It is an acknowledgment that each life is unique, unalienable, and deserving of equal consideration in the public square. The evolution of empathy and the evolution of democracy have gone hand in hand throughout history. The more empathic the culture, the more democratic its values and governing institutions. The less empathic the culture, the more totalitarian its values and governing institutions. While apparent, it's strange how little attention has been paid to the inextricable relationship between empathic extension and democratic expansion in the study of history and evolution of governance.

Reimagining freedom, equality, and democracy from an empathic perspective has far-ranging consequences for the kind of society that we choose to live in. We would need to rethink our parenting styles, educational systems, business practices and, even governance itself to reflect our empathic nature. This would constitute nothing less than a cultural revolution.

No one would deny that there is merit to our long-standing ideas about freedom, equality and democracy-especially the notions of personal responsibility, self-sufficiency, and the protection of basic economic and political rights. Still, it's hard to deny the fact that a younger generation is beginning to broaden and deepen its sense of freedom, equality and democracy in an increasingly interconnected, interdependent and collaborative world.

Perhaps what is needed is a more transparent public debate around our core views of freedom, equality and democracy. Maybe it is time to suggest a moratorium on the hyperbolic political rhetoric and incivility and begin a civil conversation around our differing views on human nature. This would offer us a moment in time to listen to each other, share our feelings, thoughts, concerns and aspirations, with the goal of trying to better understand each others' perspectives, and hopefully find some emotional and cognitive common ground.