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ADDENDUM - Interview granted to the National Post, Toronto, Canada, July 2003 Q. How important is empathy to proper psychological functioning? A. Empathy is more important socially than it is psychologically. The absence of empathy - for instance in the Narcissistic and Antisocial personality disorders - predisposes people to exploit and abuse others. Empathy is the bedrock of our sense of morality. Arguably, aggressive behavior is as inhibited by empathy at least as much as it is by anticipated punishment. But the existence of empathy in a person is also a sign of self-awareness, a healthy identity, a well-regulated sense of self-worth, and self-love (in the positive sense). Its absence denotes emotional and cognitive immaturity, an inability to love, to truly relate to others, to respect their boundaries and accept their needs, feelings, hopes, fears, choices, and preferences as autonomous entities. Q. How is empathy developed? A. It may be innate.
Even toddlers seem to empathize with the pain - or happiness - of others (such as their caregivers). Empathy increases as the child forms a self-concept (identity). The more aware the infant is of his or her emotional states, the more he explores his limitations and capabilities - the more prone he is to projecting this new found knowledge unto others. By attributing to people around him his new gained insights about himself, the child develop a moral sense and inhibits his anti-social impulses. The development of empathy is, therefore, a part of the process of socialization. But, as the American psychologist Carl Rogers taught us, empathy is also learned and inculcated. We are coached to feel guilt and pain when we inflict suffering on another person. Empathy is an attempt to avoid our own self-imposed agony by projecting it onto another. Q. Is there an increasing dearth of empathy in society today? Why do you think so? A. The social institutions that reified, propagated and administered empathy have imploded. The nuclear family, the closely-knit extended clan, the village, the neighborhood, the Church- have all unraveled. Society is atomized and anomic.
The resulting alienation fostered a wave of antisocial behavior, both criminal and "legitimate". The survival value of empathy is on the decline. It is far wiser to be cunning, to cut corners, to deceive, and to abuse - than to be empathic. Empathy has largely dropped from the contemporary curriculum of socialization. In a desperate attempt to cope with these inexorable processes, behaviors predicated on a lack of empathy have been pathologized and "medicalized". The sad truth is that narcissistic or antisocial conduct is both normative and rational. No amount of "diagnosis", "treatment", and medication can hide or reverse this fact. Ours is a cultural malaise which permeates every single cell and strand of the social fabric. Q. Is there any empirical evidence we can point to of a decline in empathy? Empathy cannot be measured directly - but only through proxies such as criminality, terrorism, charity, violence, antisocial behavior, related mental health disorders, or abuse. Moreover, it is extremely difficult to separate the effects of deterrence from the effects of empathy. If I don't batter my wife, torture animals, or steal - is it because I am empathetic or because I don't want to go to jail?
Rising litigiousness, zero tolerance, and skyrocketing rates of incarceration - as well as the ageing of the population - have sliced intimate partner violence and other forms of crime across the United States in the last decade. But this benevolent decline had nothing to do with increasing empathy. The statistics are open to interpretation but it would be safe to say that the last century has been the most violent and least empathetic in human history. Wars and terrorism are on the rise, charity giving on the wane (measured as percentage of national wealth), welfare policies are being abolished, Darwininan models of capitalism are spreading. In the last two decades, mental health disorders were added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association whose hallmark is the lack of empathy. The violence is reflected in our popular culture: movies, video games, and the media. Empathy - supposedly a spontaneous reaction to the plight of our fellow humans - is now channeled through self-interested and bloated non-government organizations or multilateral outfits. The vibrant world of private empathy has been replaced by faceless state largesse. Pity, mercy, the elation of giving are tax-deductible. It is a sorry sight. Sam Vaknin is the author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain - How the West Lost the East. He is a columnist for Central Europe Review, PopMatters, and eBookWeb , a United Press International (UPI) Senior Business Correspondent, and the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory Bellaonline, and Suite101 . Until recently, he served as the Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia.