Empathy, Cruelty, and the Curated Life
Cruelty preoccupies me. I find that stories of cruelty stay with me, hauntingly, and infiltrate deeply. I cannot conceive of it in its most basic elements, the physical act of hurting another person. Unintentional psychic injuries against others are all too understandable to me, if not all but inevitable in a life that has other people in it. But the deliberate malice of cruelty eludes me.
Some new research finds compassion and empathy to be as intrinsic to human character as self-preservation. I hope that this is true, although it’s hard to discern in the headlines today. Then again, cruelty fascinates, so we hear about it. In contrast, goodness gives the profoundly deceptive impression of being transparent, unremarkable, and without charisma.
If empathy is hardwired, then it still seems to require some flexing and practice to unleash itself in the world.
Empathy, or at least non-cruelty, doubtless requires a capacity for perspective-taking. You develop empathy by being around people with different lives and beliefs who you are forced by circumstances, manners, or custom to tolerate and listen to—or at least not to blow up, shoot, rape, maim, or scream at, either in person or virtually.
You could also develop empathy by reading stories and books, any and all books, about anybody and any character or topic under the sun—anything that has a subject or character that you don’t already recognize, or know.
Presumably we develop empathic skills by listening to intelligent discourse among differences in the political sphere.
All of these modest empathy-building habits may constitute a more lasting anti-cruelty, anti-rape initiative than the well-lit path, or new laws against harassment. But they’re in conspicuous short supply in the social milieu of the day, and in the online worlds where much of social and intellectual life is migrating.
The normal pathways to empathy and identification—random encounters with the other, or situations where we must tolerate diverse perspectives and lives—are being replaced by ever more finely-sorted and niched worlds.
These worlds are curated for us by personal techno-butlers. The techno-butler sorts through, discards, selects, and displays items to read, wear, cook, drink, drive, use, believe, befriend, or like, as gleaned by our past behavior. They suggest that we like pages based on pre-existing, already-established preferences; that we buy books just like the ones we’ve just bought; that if we liked this dress, we’ll surely like this one, as well; that we stay on the track of our own political views, reiterated into eternity with like-minded comrades in social media’s echo chamber. Online habitats fortify our personal comfort zone. Through Amazon, you can buy books forever solely in the consumer “silo” of Scandinavian detective fiction, if you like. When you’re finished with one, a message, “If you liked this…” or “readers who bought this also bought…” will guide you with the white-gloved seamlessness of a perceptive, discreet manservant to books just like it.
Under the discerning curation of the techno-butler, matters of taste, creed, identity, and affiliation are decided based on already-established affinities.
You need never stray from the self that you think you are.
Of course, we can always seek out diverse points of view and useful irritants to our own beliefs. That’s what new technologies enable us to do much more easily. Someone in North Dakota can easily befriend hipsters in New York, in the privacy of her own home.
But we must seek out that diverse point of view. The default momentum with the curated life is toward homogeneity, not heterodoxy or heteroglossia. Existing biases of preference and belief are perpetuated. It’s one of the biggest surprise hypotheses of the Internet revolution that it might have encouraged belief balkanization and tribalism when theoretically it could have done the opposite.
We don’t read much. A Pew study found that Americans read a median of six books in a year. Half read less and half read more. When we do read, we read less about people and stories unrelated to our lives. Self-improvement, inspirational, and “self-centered” books, in the literal sense of books designed to speak to your particular problems, worries, or issues (how to be happier, more pious, or sexier) dominate the sales. Here, too, the empathy-building functions of reading and literacy defer to solipsism.
Rather than read about them, we shoot the other in lifelike single-shooter video games. While the shooter is a very real subject to himself, the others—the characters in the game—are there to be shot.
We don’t hear intelligent discourse of dissent in the public, political sphere much. This point is too painfully obvious to elaborate, to anyone who’s had to listen to a politician in the last decade, or read the rants of embattled, ideologically non-empathetic partisans online.
The solutions of perspective-taking and empathy-building through books or talk may seem remote from the rape of a 15-year old in Nova Scotia or California. But they’re not. Cruelty festers when empathy and perspective-taking fail—when it becomes easier to look at others at a remove, and as less than entirely real to us as fellow humans. Moments of cruelty and non-empathy are what it looks like when the social compact frays.
Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.
- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
- Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
- Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.
- The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
- The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
- It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
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