Literary Insights: The Kindness War

The Kindness War: Where Did Empathy Go?

This is the next instalment of the Literary Insights column by Susanne Carter.

The title of Jamil Zaki’s new book, The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, certainly caught my attention.  Since Donald Trump was elected of the U. S., I have witnessed a war ON kindness in my own country coupled with a decline in empathy and rise in divisiveness that is deeply concerning.  

In this blog, I discuss Zaki’s exploration of empathy in this timely book.  In the Writers Notes I discuss what makes this book an accomplishment. 

Jamil Zaki is a professor at Stanford and director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Laboratory who specializes in studying empathy.  His research is especially timely in an era where empathy seems to be in short supply.  “Being a psychologist studying empathy today is like being a climatologist studying the polar ice,” he writes. “Each year we discover more about how valuable it is, just as it recedes all around us.”

Empathy as a Choice

Zaki’s writing is a skillful combination of personal experience (his parents went through a bitter divorce when he was a child), anecdotes, interviews, global news events, project descriptions, virtual reality experiments, and several decades of scientific research.   Zaki contends that empathy is not a hard-wired trait that either exists or does not exist but rather a skill that can be learned and practiced to increase over time.  Empathy is a choice.

“Through the right practices,” Zaki writes, “such as compassion meditation, diverse friendships and even fiction reading, we can grow our empathy on purpose. Empathy is something like a muscle: left unused, it atrophies, put to work, it grows.”

Zaki maintains that empathy is an essential characteristic that separates humans from other species. Using empathy, he writes, “we can travel into the minds of not just friends and neighbors but also enemies, strangers, and even imaginary people in films or novels,” he writes. This helped us become the kindest species on Earth.”  We are “world-class collaborators,” he maintains, “helping each other far more than any other species.”  Over centuries this has been our “secret weapon” for survival.  

The Decline of Empathy

Research indicates that the empathy we feel towards other people has taken a downward turn over the past several decades.  As more people gravitate to urban areas than ever before, Zaki points out, we see more people than ever before, but we actually know less people.  More and more people live solitary lives and depend upon the Internet for personal connections.  This recipe for isolationism makes it easier to hate people who are not like us than to try to understand them.  Places such as bathrooms that were once considered neutral ground have now become battlefields of confrontation.  Political differences have become polarizing and hateful.  

Hope for Empathy’s Future

While Zaki cites multiple examples of waning empathy from all over the world, he also describes projects intended to promote empathy. These provide hope that empathy is still alive.  A former neo-Nazi founded a group called Life After Hate.  A Rwandan radio soap opera has helped heal the psychological trauma resulting from the country’s genocide. A project in Massachusetts called Changing Lives Through Literature helps ex-prisoners develop empathy through reading about fictional characters who have faced challenging issues.  Another project helps prevent empathy burnout among doctors and nurses who work in emotionally stressful Neonatal Intensive Care Units.

It is through empathy that we have been able to thrive—until now.  Today we have reached a precarious point in the development or decline of civilization. Where we go from here in our ability to empathize will greatly determine our future.  Philosopher Jeremy Rifkin phrases it this way:  “The most important question facing humanity is this: Can we reach global empathy in time to avoid the collapse of civilization and save the Earth?” 

Writers Notes from Literary Insights

The War for Kindness is an accomplishment in many ways:

  1. Jamil Zaki has seized upon a timely issue to write about at an opportune time.  The fact that empathy is his research area as well as his passion is also fortunate.  
  1. Zaki’s book, although a motley combination of personal experiences, research, and assorted other forms of narrative, is assimilated in a very seamless and readable style.  Even the research study descriptions and scientific findings are written in layman’s language that is very understandable.
  1. While most of the research and examples cited in Zaki’s book document a loss of empathy over the past few decades, he is careful to also describe positive expressions of empathy.  This balance offer readers a feeling of hope that the war FOR kindness might be won after all.

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