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Jeremy Rifkin Headshot

Will We Heed President Obama's Call for a More Empathic Society?

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In a memorial service held in Tucson, Arizona for victims of the recent tragedy, President Obama called on Americans to "sharpen our instincts for empathy" so that we can become a more civil people.

The President's call for a more empathic culture and civil society raises the troubling question of "What has gone so terribly wrong with America?" Why are we becoming more aggressive, violent, self-interested and intolerant as a society? The problem goes deeper than just blaming the escalating rhetoric of political pundits and talk show hosts. They are playing off a deeper sensibility that has become engrained in the thinking of many Americans.

It is our core beliefs about the very nature of human beings that make us so susceptible to the rising plague of intolerance that is spreading across the land. The American character was forged, in large part, on a skewed idea about who we are as a people that was spawned several hundred years ago in the Protestant Reformation and English Enlightenment.

From the very moment John Winthrop and his flock of Puritans landed on American shores in 1630, we came to believe that we are God's chosen people and that the Lord has a unique covenant with us that makes us special among the peoples of the world. In our economic life, we have become the fiercest supporters of Adam Smith's belief that the naked pursuit of individual self-interest in the market is the defining feature of human nature. In our political life, we have come to believe in "American Exceptionalism," that our political ideology is somehow superior to all others. In our social life, we are the strongest supporters of Social Darwinism, that life is a combative struggle in which only the strongest survive. These highly regarded core beliefs are antithetical to a mature empathic sensibility.

It's no wonder that when President Obama spoke of empathy during his first year in office and mentioned that it is the guiding philosophical principle in his life, he was pummeled and excoriated in the popular press as being weak and unfit to be the "Commander-in-Chief" of the most powerful nation on Earth.

What is there about the concept of empathy that conjures up so much derision? Why are some so frightened?

Perhaps it's because being empathic requires giving up the pretense of being special and anointed. It means being mindful of other points of view. It means abandoning the idea that rank self-interest governs all behavior. And, most important, it means being open to the plight of others.

New discoveries in human evolutionary development are challenging our long held shibboleths about human nature. We are learning that human beings are biologically predisposed not for aggression, violence, self-interest and pleasure seeking utilitarian behavior but, rather, for intimacy and sociability, and that empathy is the emotional and cognitive means by which we express these drives.

To empathize is to experience another's condition as if it was our own. It is to recognize their vulnerabilities and their struggle to flourish and be. To be able to empathize with another requires that we first acknowledge our own vulnerabilities. It is because we realize that life is fraught with challenges, that we are all imperfect, fragile and vulnerable, that life is precious and worthy of being treated with respect, that we are then able to reach out and, through our empathic regard, express our solidarity with our fellow beings. Empathy is how we celebrate each other's existence. To empathize is to civilize.

Empathy is the real "invisible hand" of history. It is the social glue that has allowed our species to express solidarity with each other over ever broader domains. Empathy has evolved over history. In forager-hunter societies, empathy rarely went beyond tribal blood ties. In the great agricultural age, empathy extended past blood ties to associational ties based on religious identification. Jews began to empathize with fellow Jews as if in an extended family, Christians began empathizing with fellow Christians, Muslims with Muslims, and so on. In the Industrial Age, with the emergence of the modern nation-state, empathy extended once again, this time to people of like-minded national identities. Americans began to empathize with Americans, Germans with Germans, Japanese with Japanese. Today empathy is beginning to stretch beyond national boundaries to include the whole of humanity. We are coming to see the biosphere as our indivisible community, and our fellow human beings and creatures as our extended evolutionary family.

This doesn't mean that our national loyalties, religious beliefs and blood affiliations are not important to us. But when they become a litmus test for defining the human sojourn, all other beliefs become the alien other.

For a long time, we Americans have been obsessed with "creating a more perfect union." Maybe it is time to put equal weight on creating a more "empathic society."

Jeremy Rifkin is author of The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis