Is ‘meaning’ the missing piece of the empathy puzzle?

Books about empathy seem boundless, with each one attempting to teach the reader how to become more empathetic. In 2020 alone, I counted more than 15 mainstream books on the practice of empathy. In 2019, another 25 books on empathy. 2021 wasn’t much different.

Despite the onslaught of books and wisdom on empathy, the world seems to be getting anything but empathetic. If there wasn’t enough proof on the matter, 2020 certainly took care of that. Consider just some of the events that unfolded in 2020 – protests against police brutality toward Black Americans and consequently protests against the Black Lives Matters movement, protests against masks and vaccines with very little regard for the safety of the most vulnerable in society, the rise of hate crimes against Asian Americans, and so much more. I don’t think you’ll have difficulty in accepting the fact that the world is becoming anything but more empathetic.

Never before has the world been more divided on matters of politics, gender, race, income and everything in between. Yet I expect there will be another 20 titles on the subject of empathy in 2022. They too, in my opinion, will not make any measurable impact on how people see the world around them. Why? Because they all miss the mark on one fundamental truth about how humans make sense of the world around them — not through similarities, but through differences. 

But more on this later.

First, let us set some boundaries around empathy: 

There is something fundamentally flawed about the definition of empathy. According to Oxford, empathy is our ability to understand and share the feelings of others. While it may certainly be possible to understand what someone might be going through, it is physically impossible to live through someone else’s body and experience. Which means it is (practically speaking) impossible to “share” the feelings of others. The only option available to us is the sharpen our skills at understanding someone else’s opinions, ideas, and feelings.

That is it.

That is the extent of our ability to achieve empathy.

So our goals and targets need to change. The best we can do is achieve an understanding of what others might be going through. Which is exactly what I want to focus on here. 

Coming back to my earlier point about understanding through differences rather than similarities. 

In the early part of the twentieth century, linguists and semioticians discovered that human beings do not make sense of new ideas by comparing them to other similar ideas. Rather, they make sense of something new by contrasting it with something that already exists…by thinking about what it is not. For example, if a person has never seen a dog before, and they suddenly come across a dog, they will make sense of what it is by thinking about what it is not — a cat, a pig, a horse etc. This is just how our brains process new information. 

We often talk about finding common ground when we are trying to develop an understanding of someone else’s experience or ideas. But in reality what we should be doing is actively exploring the differences and asking why those differences exist.

Let us take a very obvious example. We discuss it in this week’s episode of Why Meaning Matters. The meaning of “healthy skin”.

To some, healthy skin is a result of what they eat, drink, and the lifestyle they lead. Healthy skin is the outcome of a holistic approach to one’s health.

To others, healthy skin is simply what it appears to be. If their skin looks good on the outside, then it must be good on the inside. Health is less about an inside-out approach. Rather it’s about attacking the problems as they appear on a need-to basis.

The journey for each group to develop empathy for the other is not to try and walk a mile in each other’s shoes, but rather is to understand the factors that create differences in the meanings each group assigns to the same outcome – good looking skin. 

The factors that create differences.

In the world of sociology, we often think about the factors that create differences as those relating to one’s upbringing, education, income etc. Those are not the types of factors I’m referring to here. The types of factors that I’m more interested in are what I call other affiliations – other cultures of meaning that affiliate themselves with the culture of healthy skin. For example, if someone comes to the culture of healthy skin through the culture of natural and holistic living, their inside-out approach to food and their health will also translate to their skin. On the contrary, someone who comes to the culture of healthy skin through the lens of performance will dedicate their time to finding the most effective ways to gain a performance advantage over others, be it when it comes to their health, their body, or their skin. They are less concerned about how they achieve it as long as they are taking the fastest and the most efficient route to get there.

Decoding these factors that create differences in the meaning people give to ideas, concepts and issues in culture can make a significant impact on our ability to understand each other’s experiences better. We may never agree with someone’s opinion, but we can certainly arrive at a place where we understand why it exists the way it does. I believe that this is the extent of our ability to empathize and getting there requires us to actively and openly explore the differences and ask why they might exist they way they do.

More on this in a future newsletter.

What do you want to research today?