A couple of times in your life, you have to face yourself and ask: “Is there something fundamentally wrong with me?”. For me, one such moment came some years ago listening to a podcast by Stefan Molyneux talking about the suffering caused by the Iraq War. One could clearly hear Stefan tearing up over the tragedy that had befallen the Iraqi people, and over all the suffering, death, injuries, maimings, disease and impoverishment now being the reality of daily life for those poor and oppressed people. My own reaction was lackluster and can best be described as detached and academic. I didn’t have an emotional connection or reaction to being presented with the gruesome facts. I opposed it, but not out of empathy for the people, but rather out of a principled opposition to needless war.
In that moment listening to the podcast, I recognized my own reaction as something that warranted further scrutiny. Why didn’t I have the same reaction as Stefan? Elevating this question to a higher level, we can explore how our own empathy might (and perhaps should) evolve over time, as we grow from children into adulthood. Another example I can provide to you is how I reacted to slapstick humor as a youngster. I laughed, just like everyone else in the room when I saw someone injuring themselves. People getting hit in the face by an object, children falling, people failing physical feats, you know this type of material, the typical content of “funniest home videos” programs and clips.
Only a few years ago did I consciously recognize that I no longer found such videos (as) funny. My sense of humor is currently more evolved, or “refined” if you will. I think that this evolution transcends the understanding of the inappropriateness of enjoying the suffering and pain of others. Such amusement fuelled by the misery of others doesn’t fit in with our mental self-image as caring people wishing the peoples of the world the best. The change can’t be explained away by my own accumulation of painful experiences, and having an empathic connection through these. I can truthfully attest that no such link took place, even as I suffered through painful medical conditions.
A popular YouTube channel containing “slapstick” humor is called “Fail Army”. Molyneux has mentioned this channel on his podcasts several times, talking about empathy. My childhood sense of empathy would have been endlessly entertained by their videos, while now I avoid them if possible. If I begin to smile while viewing painful experiences in such material, I now catch myself and reflect over what just happened. Another example of this can be found in the Mr. Bean film “Bean: The Ultimate Disaster Movie”. In a particular scene, Mr. Bean disables a security guard by putting strong laxatives in his coffee, forcing him to run to the nearest bathroom. Prior to mixing in the laxatives, Mr. Bean locked the doors to the bathroom facilities and shuffled all the keys in the security office. We see the security guard suffering through oncoming diarrhea, frantically attempting to find the correct key while his stomach is growling furiously.
When I was young, I found this movie to be supremely funny. I didn’t stop and think about the fundamentally evil nature of Mr. Bean’s actions. The security guard was simply doing his job, completely innocent of any wrongdoing. Was Mr. Bean portrayed as villainous for inflicting pain and suffering on an innocent human being? No, the audience was expected to cheer his “ingenuity” in overcoming the building’s security. In the same way that I’m now more conscious of my own relationship to empathy and my own emphatic reactions to the goings on of the world, I’m also looking at films, books, music and other art forms much more deeply than before, exploring the complex undertones and hidden meanings that escaped my childish understanding of the world.
It has taken me a long time and a lot of effort to reach this point. I wonder how our societies would change if a critical mass of people had similar awakenings? Would our politics, culture, financial system, and so on change as well?