One of My Favorite Jokes

One of my favorite jokes is that there are two kinds of people in the world, those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t. I think there is a lot to this.  That desire to try and categorize things as black or white, to force people into one camp or the other, really does ignore the rich tapestry that is most of human experience. I recently experienced a trifecta of podcasts that left me thinking about social justice from three different perspectives. (Yeah, I’m a Podcast addict).  A recent Hidden Brain podcast talked about the black/white dichotomy in relation to many of the world’s conflicts. They talked to Avner Gvaryahu, a former paratrooper in the Israeli army, who angered his fellow Israelis for talking about his work as a soldier and Mohammed Dajani, a Palestinian professor who now lives in the United States out of fear for his life.  Dr. Dajani observed that the real conflict in the Middle East is not between Israel and Palestine, but between those who believe in conflict and those who wish for peace. On either side of almost any conflict there are those who benefit from conflict and those who long for peace.  Avner and Mohammed discovered that their true allies were not other Israelis or other Palestinians, but peace minded people on either side of the border.  The both came to realize that this conversion was affected through empathy.

Next, I listened to a Freakonomics episode which brought together a collection of prominent researchers from several fields to solve humanity’s biggest problem, people. Or to be more specific, the tendency of people to make choices that undermine their own wellbeing. Their interdisciplinary team includes four members of the National Academy of Sciences, three MacArthur Fellows, and one Nobel Laureate.  Their goal is to develop insights about systems that can “engineer around human nature. You can’t just assume that people will make the rational long-term decision. You have to work with the way people are”. And how are people?

Well, when it comes to the way that we feel about each other, it turns out we just plain really don’t know. A couple of days after listening to Stephen J. Dubner, Angela Duckworth and Katy Milkman, I listened to another of my favorites, a Stuff You Should Know podcast also on Empathy. Their big realization is that in academia, there is little agreement about the meaning of basic terms such as Empathy, Sympathy, and Compassion. They talk about Yale’s Paul Bloom who has argued that empathy itself is potentially a double edged sword. Dr. Bloom argues it’s a little more complicated than simply promoting empathy, that:

“Being a good person likely is more related to distanced feelings of compassion and kindness, along with intelligence, self-control, and a sense of justice. Being a bad person has more to do with a lack of regard for others and an inability to control one’s appetites.”

As Frans De Waal puts it, “This is the challenge of our time: globalization by a tribal species. In trying to structure the world such that it suits human nature, the point to keep in mind is that political ideologues by definition hold narrow views. They are blind to what they don’t wish to see.”

And that most of what they don’t what us to see is that, we are more alike than we are different.