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Review: The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World by Jamil Zaki

Short review: two thumbs up. Zaki and his work are the real deal. Zaki “gets it” as regards empathy. The most important take-away: empathy is trainable, teachable, malleable, acquirable, and an expandable competence and skill rather than an unchangeable personality trait that one either has or not.

The next most important take-away: the world needs expanded empathy and more kindness. As I read Zaki, empathy and kindness feed into one another in a fundamental way. Empathy provides a clearing within which compassion – which Zaki calls “kindness” – shows up.

 The battle for kindness, the title, is a real battle in which people have to decide whether aggression and greed get the upper hand or possibilities of human

Cover art: The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World

Cover art: The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World

flourishing are shared among members of the community. The “battle” – but here is scare quotes – is also about the optimum methods, given limited resources, for expanding empathy itself in the community through education, individual action, and community activism.

 The long review: Zaki throws down the gauntlet: “If you wanted to design a system to break empathy, you could scarcely do better than the society we’ve created” (p. 8).

Zaki’s Jeremiad creates a sense of urgency and a call to action by citing tribalism, intolerance, the unintended consequences of social networking such as bullying, fake news, pervasive human aggression, genocide, and the drowned, would-be Syrian migrant child, Alan Kurdi. Heart-breaking. I am already nearly vicariously traumatized.

By the end of Chapter One, the reader is starting to get a sense of the risk of compassion fatigue. Evidence-based research indicates that empathy peaks in the third year of medical school (Hojat et al 2011; Halpern 2001), and absent decisive intervention, the future holds, not expanded empathy but, compassion fatigue, burnout, and empathic distress. The remainder of the book provides the antidote in the context of the issues and ongoing debate about the relevance of empathy.

Zaki’s own evidence-based, peer-reviewed research as a professor of psychology – and his fundamental contribution – focuses on the notion of flexibility, malleability, and plasticity versus fixity of empathy. At the risk of over-simplification, when people believe that working at something makes a difference and when they actually work at it, then they get better at it. The something in question is empathy. In several ingenious experiments, those who have the mindset [key term: mindset] that practicing empathy expands empathy make progress with the empathic skill in question.

No one is saying that one can merely change one’s mind, the way one would rather order fish instead of steak at a restaurant. Not so simple. Work means work; and much of the subsequent debate about empathy – the “battle” in quotes – is about what actually does work: Contact with diverse individuals seems to expand empathy (unless it doesn’t); story telling (and what kind of stories!); reading fictional literature; skill exercises similar to cognitive behavioral therapy; mindfulness meditation; psychodynamic therapy [not one of Zaki’s examples]. Many conditions and qualifications apply. The list is long and not mutually exclusive.

One of the things that most impressed me about Zaki’s evidence-based research into empathy (on which his book is based) is the recognition of the ways in which empathy can misfire, breakdown, or otherwise go off the rails (e.g., Zaki and Ciskara, 2015, Addressing empathic failures, Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol 24, no. 6: 471–476). 

Thus runs the standard critique of empathy that it is too parochial and ends up applying only to the in-group. The solution? To overcome the limitations of empathy, expand one’s empathy. There is nothing inherently limited in empathy such that it cannot be extended to strangers. That it does not automatically occur to many people, including high school students, to do so does not mean they would not be able to do so or even befit from doing so.  Hearing the story of the Good Samaritan might incent some. Some communities acknowledge the issue by making a moral imperative to welcome strangers without exception and provide for their well-being when asked. This results in real drama when the stranger who shows up is also otherwise regarded as an enemy.

That empathy can breakdown and misfire is not a problem for empathy as such; that you make arithmetical errors does not invalidate number theory. More likely such a breakdown in empathy means the practitioner of empathy needs more training, experience, and skill applying the relevant distinctions.

That empathy does not automatically extend to the tribe in the valley on the other side of the hill does not mean there is anything wrong with empathy. It just means without training some people suck at being empathic [my term, not Zaki’s]. The solution is simply stated: expanded empathy. This apparent limitation just means the local tribe may usefully expand its empathy. That takes work – which is Zaki’s point.

If these seem like a bold statement of the obvious to you, dear reader, then that is good news, for Zaki’s research is getting traction. However, I can still cite many examples of average citizens, natural empaths, people on the autistic spectrum, or just ordinary citizens, who regard empathy as a fixed personality trait with which they are born or that is fixed in adolescence.

Such a perspective is a subset, though not a logically necessary one, of the view that human nature is static and fixed. For Marxists, people are essentially workers, producing a community; for Freudians people are essentially conflicted containers of sex and aggression striving to love and work; for Max Weber, people are driven by grand ideologies such as the world religions; for authentic Christians, people are sinners, yet God’s children, redeemed by the sacrifice of their Lord; for neo-Darwinians, people are survivalist, gene-producing mechanisms. This is list is long and not complete.

Zaki’s point – that empathy can be expanded, improved – is one that has been around for but not received the attention it has deserved. Empathy is not an “on off” switch, but rather a dial or tuner. Tune it up and tune it down based on circumstances. From that perspective empathy can even provide a filter that provides protection against being overwhelmed by the suffering of others while still remaining engaged with their humanity.

Thus, one has to be careful to believe the hype in the marketing material as regards “a bold new understanding of empathy.” As early as 1971, a man named Heinz Kohut, MD, published extensively that the results of a treatment using self-psychological methods he pioneered produced improved humor, wisdom – and expanded empathy. Thus, a footnote from the history of empathy.

Using what was the prevailing paradigm at the time, psychoanalytic talk therapy, Kohut treated his patients empathically. He gave them a good listening. Just as important as a good listening, when the listening broke down and was restored in a committed empathic relatedness, then the gains in empathy were consolidated and driven into the personality as reliable, repeatable competencies.

Along with Carl Rogers, PhD, of “unconditional positive regard” client-centered fame, and who Kohut apparently never read, separately and together, Kohut and Rogers put empathy on the map. The person’s empathy is expanded by restoring and working through the breakdowns in empathy that seemingly inevitably occurred as two human beings tried to relate to one another. The devil is in the details, but you have got to get empathy, struggle with it, and practice it, in order subsequently to be able to be empathic and use it to relate to other people.

Since this is not a softball review, the controversial issue is engaged:  is empathy inherently prosocial or, in the wrong hands, can empathy be used antisocially, harmfully, even diabolically, and under what conditions and qualifications. In short, does empathy have a dark-side and what is it?

Empathy clears away judgments, evaluations, biases, and prejudices and allows one person to respond to another as a whole human being. I assert that is what happened to Tony – one of Zaki’s examples – when, already a broken and isolated individual, Tony discovered the camaraderie of the white supremacists community. They “got him” as a whole person – at least initially – before further filling his head with dehumanizing memes about nonwhites and other marginalized groups. Hmmm.

You see the issue? Humanity is supposed to show up in the clearing created by empathic relatedness. But what if it doesn’t. Human beings are empathic and kind. They are also aggressive and greedy. Human beings are tolerant and accepting. They are also intolerant and biased. Human beings are a clearing for possibilities – some good, others, less so.

The wisdom of Zaki’s guidance: hey, guys, you are gonna have to work at it – i.e., expanding empathy. More problematic is what will happened if you don’t. If you do not do so, then the empathy will contract and the bad guys will misuse what little empathy they do in fact have and probably kill (or enslave) all the good guys before unwittingly blowing themselves up with nuclear bombs, biological weapons, or climate catastrophe(s).

The cure through empathy is exemplified by Zaki’s example of Tony, the racist, fascist, white supremacist, skinhead-type, who (it turns out) created a surface of hatred to cover his shame and loneliness (p. 60). Zaki gives survivors of abuse a bad name, though it is indisputable that Tony was one of those too. Not fitting in for sooo many reasons, Tony finds acceptance and toleration in a community built on hate, the white Aryan resistance.

Fast-forward a couple of years. Tony is now a parent – a life-transforming event in itself. Things are not going well and Tony is about to lose custody of his children, for whom he seems to have the standard parental love, even amidst all the emotional disregulation. Tony gets some empathy from Dov Baron, a trainer that Tony did not realize was Jewish, and Tony gets better. Wouldn’t it be nice? Get some empathy, one gets better. What this misses is that the transformation effects are a function of restoring empathy that has broken down in the relationship. And that is a lot of work (as indeed Zaki has assured us). It is probable that something like that breakdown-restore process is what happened between Dov and Tony.

Empathy reliably de-escalates anger and rage. I hasten to add that I am in favor of creating a space of acceptance and toleration by setting firm empathic boundaries; but the challenge is that, unless one is careful, the bad guys are just going to pump hatred and negativity into the space.

The bottom line for Zaki? Given a cleared space of acceptance and toleration, Zaki aligns with Batson’s and de Waal’s and (perhaps) the folk definition that empathy is inherently prosocial. Basically, empathy includes caring. Empathy includes compassion (see the definition p. 178). People want to reduce the pain and suffering of others. Why? Because people experience a trace of the pain and suffering of others as vicarious experience, shared experience, or emotional contagion (these are not the same thing!).

Even if one allows that the psychopath uses his alleged empathy the better to manipulate his victim, one can argue back that it is a misuse of empathy that is not inherently empathic.

However, an even tougher case, because it hits closer to home regarding the dark-side of empathy, what about the professional hazard of compassion fatigue?

I came away from Zaki’s account of the neonatal intensive care unit experiencing more than a little bit of vicarious suffering. Nothing wrong with that as such, but that is challenge to all the helping professions – and to empathy as such. This is also a credit to Zaki’s ability as a narrator. The story was compelling. The pain and suffering significant.

Reading Zaki reminded me of a radical proposal. If you are experiencing compassion fatigue, regardless of your profession, maybe you are being too compassionate. It is no accident that the term is “compassion fatigue,” not empathy fatigue. I hasten to add that at no point does Zaki say “you are being too compassionate,” but it seems to me to be implied.

No one is saying be unkind or hard-hearted. But if empathy is a dial or stereo tuner (as Zaki notes), not an “on off” switch, then dial it down. The nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit finds herself confronted by innocent suffering and decides to think about her feet rather than the suffering around her. She thinks “this tragedy is not mine” (p. 116) rather than taking on all the emotions of the family of the dying preemie.  She dials down the emotion suffering, and lives emotionally to fight the good fight for another day. I repeat: dials empathy down rather than gets overloaded and has to turn it off. People are not necessarily born knowing how to do this, which is why practice is required. This is the world of tips and techniques for those on the front lines.

This is the age of evidence-based everything. In Appendix B, Evaluating the evidence, Zaki lists the claims made in each chapter and evaluates the evidence to support the claim on a 1 to 5 scale. Thus, for those claims for which the evidence is limited (rated 1 to 3), Zaki (and Kari Leibowitz) discuss the limitations. Perhaps this comment is one for the “no good deed goes unpunished fie,” and yet I would have appreciated reading why the positive evidence is so positive (nor do I disagree with the overall assessment).

The thing that is overlooked in an approach that regards evidence as based on people’s report’s of their mindsets is that people are self-deceived, limited in their ability to change perspectives, and just flat out at the effect of significant blind spots, prejudices, biases – i.e., mindsets. The bad guys will try to use empathy to create a space for white supremacy or other distorted, diabolical mischief in the space. Zaki makes a strong case that empathy is at risk of declining precipitously and specific steps such as training and education in empathy, conflict resolution, mindfulness, and other spiritual disciplines can make a profound difference in reversing this worrisome trend.

But this work overlooks resistance to empathy. Empathy is supposed to be like motherhood and apple pie. So why is there so much resistance to it? To use Zaki’s term, so why is there such an intense war for kindness? I am starting to sense that it is just too much work. The mindset is that it is just too hard and what is really needed is a lazy person’s guide to empathy. Who knows what tomorrow may bring?

The issue with Zaki’s approach (and this should be read in the context of the otherwise highest assessment of his contribution), is the single-minded focus on kindness. Empathy creates a clearing [my phrase, not Zaki’s]; and on a good day, we can create the possibility of kindness (and related positive human phenomena) in the space that opens up. All good. No one is saying, be unkind or uncaring. But is caring really a part of the definition of empathy?

Empathic concern is a modification of empathy; but it is just one of many possible empathic responses. Acknowledgement of the other person, recognition of the other’s humanity, giving the other person back his experience in a form that he recognizes it as his own, are arguably the basic empathic responses born of empathic data gathering. We are related. Period. For an evidence-based approach, there is nothing wrong, but what is missing is that empathy is a form of data gathering about the experience of the other person. Empathy falls out of the equation if, regardless of the other’s experience, one should always be kind.

From an empirical perspective, no necessary connection exists between empathy and kindness. It might well be more practical and the line of least resistance to link empathy with human dignity, toleration of diversity, or respect for boundaries. There are some people who just do not feel very charitable or altruistic, but if they behaved so as not to hurt others, respected boundaries, paid their taxes, then the world would still be much better off than it is now. Now one may argue back that such a non-kind [not unkind!] person would be logically inconsistent since he relies on the kindness of strangers (at least indirectly) while not providing such kindness to others in return. Strange to imagine paying taxes as an empathic gesture – and yet perhaps it is one. The debate is joined.

Zaki’s book is fully buzzword-compliant. He gives a shout out to mirror neurons as the neurological infrastructure of empathy; the history of empathy in the work of Adam Smith, Theodor Lipps, and Edith Stein; and Gregory Batson’s experiments that provide evidence that empathy is inherently prosocial, creating (as I like to say) a clearing for altruism to show up.

Less charitable (but not necessarily less empathic) thinkers argue that Batson’s empathy-altruism hypothesis is actually the “no good deed goes unpunished” hypothesis in a world in which ethical conflicts are common. Why? After priming seminary students to commit to giving a lecture on The Parable of the Good Samaritan, they are sent off across campus. They encounter a man flat on his back (actually an actor and confederate in the experiment) at the entrance to the lecture. They have to decide whether to help him or keep their commitment to give the lecture. Never was it truer that the urgent drives out the important. The debate continues.

Zaki’s mindset is basically a product of the enlightenment – however crooked the timber of which mankind is made, we are susceptible of improvement.  Agree. Expect people to succeed, they just might do so. Expect them to fail, they start living into one’s low expectations of them. Yet Zaki’s approach also aligns well with the rather negative, post-modern idea that no governing metanarrative exists. (See the stuff on Marx, Freud, and so on for “grand meta narratives.”) Given the examples of human behavior so far, especially in the 20th century, the slide towards the abyss seems to be accelerating. His is a call to action that demands a response – an empathic one.

Zaki shares powerful personal anecdotes, about which I would have liked to have heard more. That’s where the empathy LIVEs. As a kid, between the ages of 8 years old and 12, young Jamil is caught in the cross fire of the years long divorce between his hard charging Pakistani father, working 18 hour a day to escape the poverty and deprivation he survived, and a kinder, gentler, Hispanic mother, who, nevertheless, struggled with her own emotional disregulation.

Zaki credibly asserts that he had to take his own initially limited empathy up a couple of levels to navigate the emotional mine field [and mind field?] of two parents blaming one another and trying to enroll him – the kid – in their perpetrations.

Fast-forward to Zaki’s building a family of his own, and his first-born is born with a condition that has the baby (and the family) in the neonatal intensive care unit. Not for the faint of heart. Zaki subsequently returns to the NICU to do qualitative research on empathy and the risk of burnout and compassion fatigue. I know nothing (really!), but my sense of it all? In a world in which neither empathy nor kindness is particularly abundant, this book is Zaki’s way of creating expanded empathy for himself. Once again, my take? Zaki struggles; the reader – and the community – benefit. Our thanks to Jamil Zaki for his penetrating analysis – and his empathy!

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project