Richard Thieme's Islands in the Clickstream

The Problem of Empathy

It feels like that moment when Obi-Wan Kenobi suddenly lowered his head as if he had a bad headache and said he sensed a disturbance in the force.

In that Star Wars episode, Obi-Wan was feeling the explosion of a planet and the dying of all its inhabitants.

Itís hard to stay in denial when a whole planet is exploding.

Which those of us on earth should realize right about now.

I donít mean itís the end of civilization or anything apocalyptic. Itís more the end of a youthful phase. Every generation has its own passage when it loses innocence. We tried to tell our kids what it was like during Viet Nam, when the cities burned after the assassinations, when Watergate threatened to bring down the government, but everybody has to hear the screams for themselves. Thereís no mistaking them, once you hear them. No forgetting them either.

"You have to compartmentalize what youíre doing," a veteran told me candidly. "Youíre killing people, sometimes innocent people. You have to understand that in a way that makes it OK."

Now, I confess to being radically impractical. It has plagued me my whole life long. So take what I say with a grain of salt. This reflection wonít help you make more money, get a promotion, or manipulate some demographic into buying what youíre selling. But I feel the headache coming on that says thereís a disturbance in the force and maybe this will help.

Itís about feeling, not thinking. Too much thinking results in software that mistakes our planes for supersonic enemy missiles and shoots them down. Too much thinking gives machines the responsibility for too much of the fighting. We need to listen to feelings once in a while and remember that the enemy is human too.

Years ago, when I was a clergyman doing counseling, I had to learn how not to open myself completely to othersí feelings. I had to set boundaries so I wouldnít mistake myself for others. Frequently in the evening when I expressed anxiety about something, my wife would say, "Thatís not you. Itís someone else. Youíre mistaking yourself for someone else."

So empathy can be a problem. Appropriate distance is necessary. But too much distance can make us deaf to what others are trying to tell us. Too little empathy and policy and planning can go awry.

I wonder how I would feel if here in the Midwest we had been bombarded for months with leaflets or heard on our radios whenever we turned them on the French-accented English of Quebecois explaining how the Bush Regime so threatened them that self-preservation required that they liberate us from its tyranny before it could strike first. They would warn us not to resist when they came across the border and rolled toward Chicago. They were doing this, they said, not for the complex reasons that usually lead people to start a war but for our own good and the good of the world. They expect us, therefore, to line the interstate waving Quebec flags gleefully as their armor thunders past.

I mean, are these people in touch with reality AT ALL?

Ten days ago in Washington DC, some of the smartest people I know in information security repeatedly said things like, Bush has gone about this the wrong way. He believes heís right so deeply that nothing can stop him. Now weíve got to try to salvage the situation.

These are not knee-jerk responses, mind you, these are people who understand the threats. They listen to intercepts and hear terrorists plan our demise. What we hear, one told me, scares us shitless.

They know the world is messy and complex and motives always mixed. They are patriots, working long hours out of the spotlight on behalf of a country they love. Yet so many were deeply concerned about how this thing was done.

Despite the rhetoric of post 9/11, little has changed in our nationís capital. People still talk primarily to themselves. Outside the beltway itís hard to understand the smallness of the vision that results. Itís difficult to overstate how bureaucracies kill the human spirit, filter out people who take risks or respond to challenges not by hiding but by rising to the occasion. It sounds like a caricature so say that the agency across the river is more often the primary competitor while real evildoers are secondary targets but itís not. Trying to suggest that theyíre forgetting something is like little people tugging at the cuffs of big people lost in conversation in the clouds high above.

Forgetting, for example, that empathy is critical to policy and planning because troops can take Baghdad and all Iraq and still lose the real war, the one that begins when the shooting stops. Forgetting that the mind of society is the enclosed battlespace of the 21st century, all war is theater, and audiences super-saturated with media images are the main players. Forgetting that the real shock and awe is ours, when we realized they were surprised by how the world responded, how natives fought on their own territory, and by the growing concern of Americans who bought a war against terrorism but somehow were delivered a land war in Iraq.

Empathy is required for winning the peace if not for winning the war. Understanding the feelings of human beings and the consequences of our actions seems like a minimal requirement for policy and planning but apparently itís not. The capacity to get outside ourselves and feel what others feel does not mean surrendering our self-interest in some naive belief that others are better than ourselves because theyíre not -- there is no moral high ground when the shooting starts -- but it does mean understanding who others are because then we remember who we are too and then we might remember that mutual self- interest is best served by a vision that sees further than the middle of next week.


Islands in the Clickstream is an intermittent column written by Richard Thieme exploring social and cultural dimensions of computer technology and the ultimate concerns of our lives. Comments are welcome.

Richard Thieme is a professional speaker, consultant, and writer focused on the human dimensions of technology and work, "life on the edge," and strategies for growth in our business and personal lives.

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