“Then again, from below, in the great heavy stack,
Came a groan from that plain little turtle named Mack.
“Your Majesty, please… I don’t like to complain,
But down here below, we are feeling great pain.
I know, up on top you are seeing great sights,
But down here at the bottom we, too, should have rights.
We turtles can’t stand it. Our shells will all crack!
Besides, we need food. We are starving!” groaned Mack.
“You hush up your mouth!” howled the mighty King Yertle.
“You’ve no right to talk to the world’s highest turtle.
I rule from the clouds! Over land! Over sea!
There’s nothing, no, NOTHING, that’s higher than me!””
-Dr. Suess from “Yertle the Turtle and other stories”
The novelist George Santayana is often attributed to the quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” People often associate this quote with memory, and that simply knowing what happened before can prevent a future tragedy. I’ve asked myself over and over again how many times society must repeat itself. It’s clear that the problem isn’t just one of memory, it’s understanding the drivers behind great tragedy that matters.
Think back to a human caused tragedy in history. Odds are, the tragedy was enabled by an empathy deficiency at some level: the Aztecs, Nazi Germany and World War II, the French Revolution, and just about every other revolution. Empathy deficiencies don’t just cause wars, but just about every engineering disaster has it’s roots in empathy — the Halifax Disaster, the Quebec bridge, the Radium Girls, the Bhopal chemical leak, the Shuttle Challenger, and many more. Each of these has it’s roots in one of the empathy disorders of stonewalling (mirroring), bullying (emotional), sociopathy (rational), and gaslighting/psychopathy (conscious). In the moment, we justify the non-empathic decision as essential under the circumstances. But in the end, we somehow identify tragedy as something that arose through a grave misunderstanding. Simply understanding the ways that actions affect other individuals, groups, or the environment is the essential essence of empathy.
Paul Bloom and the Anti-Empathy Movement
Paul Bloom is a Professor of Psychology at Yale who in 2016 published the book, “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion“. To cherry pick several phrases from the book, “Empathy is biased, pushing us in the direction of parochialism and racism… It is innumerate… favoring the one over the many. It can spark violence; our empathy for those close to us is a powerful force for war and atrocity toward others… This perverse moral mathematics is part of the reason why governments and individuals care more about a little girl stuck in a well than about events that will affect millions.”
What you can see from Bloom’s quote is that he definitely cares about preventing tragedy and views empathy as the problem. As is often the case, what someone wants is not the problem, it’s how someone goes about doing it that matters. If you take any of the levels alone in Pezeshki’s empathy pyramid you have the potential to do great wrongs. Empathy, like entropy, is defined as many ways. Bloom seems to have a limited view of a sympathy heavy mirroring and emotional empathy. Compassion is defined as a rational form of sympathy. This is often typical of so many authoritarian-legalistic academics because these empathy forms limit power and control to promote a nuanced view of reliability. Let’s get at the social thermodynamics to straighten this quandary out.
In social thermodynamics, empathy generation is the wasted opportunity to do work. Having to work through emotional or in-group out-group dynamics can take a lot of time and resources, and yes, even lead to medical or other tragedies. This is in part because we lack appropriate context for when to act on rational values versus when to empathize as developed in Chapters 2 and 3 of this book. When the data and evidence is conclusive, and you know what values to act on, it’s time to act. That is unless not everyone understands, in which case acting against the will of others can lead to psychological harm. Remember that having values more than two v-Memes removed can make shared understanding extremely difficulty due to the amount of resources required to build the shared values. Setting up the rational and conscious empathy layers to promote shared understanding before it’s time to act is the key that Bloom seems to miss. And not just Bloom, but just about all of humanity.
We’ve watched how extreme ideals, like the Nazi elitism parodied by Dr. Suess in “Yertle the Turtle”, have led to the greatest atrocities humanity has witnessed, yet we suffer such a chronic misunderstanding of empathy that the tragedy risks repeating. Empathy and entropy are not the mere disorder of yesteryear, but may be the very thing that saves us from ourselves.
Empathy in the balance of Nature
The tower of turtles in Yertle the Turtle has many corollaries to termite towers around the world. In these, a queen termite creates a colony of millions to form tonnes of earth into towers as tall as 17 feet. What we power-driven humans often neglect though is the point of these towers. The point is to “farm” a symbiotic fungus that takes up 8 times more of the tower than the termites themselves do. The fungus needs the termites, and the termites need the fungus. One tower can take 4 to 5 years to build and one strong rain can cause the need to rebuild. And like the rafts of fire ants after floods, we may see wonders of evolution at work in the aftermath.
In his seminal text that launched the field of Thermodynamics, Saudi Carnot wrote, “Everyone knows that heat can produce motion. It causes the agitations of the atmosphere, the ascension of clouds, the fall of rains and of meteors, the currents of water which channel the surface of the globe, and of which man has thus far only employed but a small portion. Even earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are the result of heat. From this immense reservoir we may draw the moving force necessary for our purposes.” From the beginning, thermodynamics was responsible for incredible machines, like termites, and the withering of the towers they build. Without this duality, algae, fungus, or termites would’ve encompassed the planet eons ago.
Humanity seems the first organism of our planet to fully attempt this domination. Politicians and companies have gaslighted us into believing that the climate isn’t changing. We’re sociopathic enough to fence ourselves off from our neighbors and the wilderness. We’re stone-walled away from our environments behind layers of insulation and air conditioning. And we attack empathy as the cause of great injustice. The question becomes whether we’ll suffer the fate of Yertle the Turtle or realize our empathic connections to our home, before the rains come tumbling down, in whatever form they may.
“where the Lorax once stood, as long as he could, before he was lifted away…” -Dr. Suess in “The Lorax”