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The things we do: The dark side of empathy

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Portrait of children, GuatemalaMost people agree that the ability to empathize with others is part of what makes a person good.  If we can put ourselves in another’s shoes and walk a mile in them, we can better understand their joy and misery, right?  Well, the answer may be a bit more complex.
 
While empathy can push us to help others, it can also exhaust our emotional bank or push us to retaliation.  And, importantly, it can cloud our judgment.
 
The word “empathy” is used in many ways, but the most common meaning corresponds to what eighteenth-century philosophers such as Adam Smith called “sympathy.” It refers to the process of experiencing the world as others do, or at least as you think they do. Some researchers also use the term to encompass the more practical process of assessing what other people are thinking, their motivations, their plans, and what they believe. This is sometimes called “cognitive,” as opposed to “emotional,” empathy.  The two are distinct and involve very different brain processes, but most discussions of the moral implications of empathy focus on its emotional side.
 
In a speech before he became president of the United States, Barack Obama stressed how important it is

to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us — the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. . . . When you think like this — when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers — it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.

Obama is right about this last part; there is considerable support for what the psychologist C. Daniel Batson calls “the empathy-altruism hypothesis” which states that "feeling empathy for others, makes you more likely to help them. In general, empathy helps dissolve the boundaries between one person and another; it works against selfishness and indifference.

We, the people, for the global bicycle momentum

Leszek J. Sibilski's picture

“Get a bicycle. You will not regret it. If you live.” - Mark Twain
 
Have you ever wondered what happened to once commonplace items such as the abacus, the slide rule, the hourglass, or the quill; not to mention, VHS recorders, CD cassette players, and more recently, address and telephone books? They all met the same fate: they were replaced by modern technological innovations such as calculators, electronic watches, ballpoint pens, and computers. And what happened to the bicycle? It has been with us for over 200 years, and by some estimates, there are more than two billion bikes in use around the world and by 2050 this number could reach five billion. Over fifty percent of the human population can ride a bike. The bicycle is a veteran and mainstay of human mobility. Even competitive riders pay respect to the utility of bicycles outside grand tours. One of them, Ted King predicted: “Bicycles have the potential to save the world. There’s so much that a bicycle can do, from an environmental standpoint, from a health standpoint, and their social impact.” 
 
Amid the recent surge in global popularity of cycling - in sport, in leisure and in urban commuting - two presenters of Italian RAI2 radio believe that the Nobel Peace Prize should go to the bicycle. The presenters of the popular Caterpillar program describe bikes as an "instrument of peace". They say the bike "is the most democratic means of transport available to humanity". Proponents have also used the example of Italian cycling champion Gino Bartali, who during World War II ferried counterfeit documents by bike to save Jews, as an example of how the cycle has aided in "liberation and resistance". Additionally, 118 Italian Members of Parliament have also officially nominated the Afghan Cycling Federation women's team for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize. They hail the bicycle as environmental, economic, and democratic.
 
In November 2015, the European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF), in collaboration with the World Cycling Alliance (WCA), announced their commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and to the UN’s Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, who called for voluntary commitments from civil society to tackle climate change. In “Cycling Delivers on the Global Goals” the direct impact of cycling can be demonstrated on at least 11 of the 17 Global Goals. Recent research presented in “A Global High Shift Cycling Scenario” by UC Davis firmly concludes: “The results show that a world with a dramatic increase in cycling could save society $24 trillion cumulatively between 2015 and 2050, and cut CO2 emissions from urban passenger transport by nearly 11% in 2050 compared to a ‘High Shift’ scenario without a strong cycling emphasis.”
 
The global community of cycling enthusiasts celebrates, even worships, the loyalty of the freedom machine to humanity by organizing events all over the world. However, well- intentioned or -organized, all these remain out of sync with very diversified agendas. After over two centuries of stellar service to humankind, we, the people, believe that the bicycle deserves an official annual World Bicycle Day sanctioned by the United Nations, and preceded by the International Year of Bicycle Awareness and Education of Cycling for All.