This article, by psychologist Daniel Goleman, was fascinating, and it discusses something that's been bugging me a lot over the past few years: the inability of some people to empathize at all with the misfortune of others. It seems like our culture is evolving into one where a lack of empathy is seen as a strength, and reasonably well-off people who are concerned about the poor, or about the concerns of less empowered groups are dismissed as "PC" or "bleeding-hearts."
I've known for a long time that members of privileged groups generally tend to know (and care) less about the concerns and inner workings of members of less privileged groups. I always assumed it was because it was a survival tactic to know how the ones who have power over you think and feel, and I think there's truth in this.
But this article also raises the interesting fact that less empowered people express more empathy for people who are their social equals than better-off people do. The hypothesis that poorer people are more dependent on social contracts between friends, neighbors and family members certainly makes sense. As reasonably comfortable middle-aged folks, if my husband and I go on vacation, I can hire someone to take care of my dogs. I don't need to trade favors with a friend or neighbor.
I also remember reading something years ago back in animal behavior class about Imo, a young, female Japanese macaque, who had discovered a way of washing sweet potatoes from a feeding station. As I recall, the female and juvenile monkeys learned the trick by observing her, but the adult males (who are socially dominant in that species) did not. Evidently, the tendency to ignore those below you in the social hierarchy is a more generalized primate, maybe even mammalian, trait.
It's an interesting thing to think about. Maybe it's because I teach for a living, or maybe it's part of the reason I became a writer, but I think people learn as much from those "below" us in the social hierarchy as people can learn from those "above" them. Sometimes the hardest thing to remember as a teacher is to just shut up and listen to one's students sometimes. When we stop caring about, or being able to imagine what it is like to be, those less fortunate or empowered than ourselves, we lose some of what it is to be human.
This article discusses how having friendships with people from different groups helps to decrease the empathy gap. Not surprisingly, having friendships with members from different cultural groups is a strong predictor of decreased prejudice against other members of those groups. I've often wondered if increasing acceptance of people with LGBT orientations among younger straight cisgender people stems from more of them growing up in a world where one is more likely to have friends and relatives who are openly of differing orientations from oneself. It's a lot harder to oppose marriage equality laws if someone you care about is negatively impacted by "one man, one woman" legislation. I know personally, friendships I had in college were pivotal in making me examine the prejudices I had absorbed growing up in a time and place where heteronormative, even homophobic, attitudes were commonplace.
This got me to wondering, though, about the persistence of sexism and misogyny. Why doesn't the experience of growing up in the same household with a mother and sisters, and eventually developing friendships and romantic attachments to women, provide an empathy inoculation for many men? Why do so many men hold so many negative stereotypes about women, even dislike them? Is sexual disdain a special case, one men are hard-wired to have? If so, one wouldn't expect to find as many men who are free of it as one does. Are there some household situations that are less likely to raise sons that are dismissive of and contemptuous towards women than others?
If I were a social psychologist, I'd so want to investigate this.