Is a Lack of Empathy at the Root of America's Problems?

empathyIt seems to me that one of the most basic problems with US foreign and domestic policy is a lack of basic empathy.

A few days after the Newtown shootings, I asked some Americans if it made them more opposed to the US drone program which regularly takes the lives of children as 'collateral damage'. The response was immediate, bitter and angry. It was claimed, by several people, that there was absolutely no comparison between the two situations. I said that that was true. That the situation in Pakistan and Yemen was actually much worse. Obviously the body count in Pakistani and Yemen is much higher, but more than that, one situation is the result of a single, mentally ill person and the other is part of an official government policy. The response to that was almost rabid anger and a claim that US foreign policy and domestic crime had nothing in common.

In the wake of the bombing at the Boston Marathon I asked some Americans if they felt more sympathy for countries where such bombings were a daily or weekly occurrence such as Iraq and Pakistan. The response again was that the situations were not comparable and that it showed a great lack of understanding on my part.

The inability of Americans to empathize with others may be at the heart of all that is wrong with the US, both domestically and internationally. The US has one of the weakest social welfare programs in the industrial world, the weakest education system and the worst health care (for poor people) because people with money do not seem to be able to empathize with those who do not. The US has a long history of discrimination against women, people of color and homosexuals in large part because many in the US have a very difficult time seeing things from the perspective of others.

Perhaps the best example though is Iraq. The US, under false pretenses launched an illegal attack on a sovereign country. The war decimated that country, it's civil society, its economy, its infrastructure, & etc. In the aftermath of that war, the focus of most in the US seems to be on the impact it had at home. Obviously someone should be accountable for the US soldiers who died, those who were wounded and the billions spent but the US was not the victim. Iraq is still gripped by civil war and even if that ceases it will take decades for Iraq to return to the state it was in before the war, both in terms of civil society and overall development. In a just world the US would be on the hook for all rebuilding expenses and all damage, personal, private and medical incurred by the Iraqi people.

Obviously this would throw the US into a much worse economic state than it's currently in, but it also might make the US a more peaceful country and one that is a little more reluctant to do the exact same thing a few years later.

I will leave you with a Ted lecture from Sam Richards titled A Radical Experiment in Empathy and the general hypothesis that a little more "Do unto others ..." would go a long way to fixing the myriad of problems that plague the US, and for that matter Canada and the world.

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