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Are you unable to relate to others? Are you inflexible when arguing with loved ones? Do you really and truly not give a shit about the world outside of your front door? Would people say that you’re an incontrovertible dickface?
If you answered yes to any of the above, you may be suffering from EDD: Empathy Deficit Disorder.
Think I just made that up to be funny? Nuh uh. This is for serious. Check the Washington Post’s December 25, 2007 edition for the original column (“Empathy: Could it be What You’re Missing?”) or – if you can stomach it – Oprah.com’s more recent editorial on the subject from June 18, 2008 (“Empathy deficit disorder – do you suffer from it?”).
To summarize the main points of both articles: Dr. Douglas LaBier, founder of the Center for Adult Development in Washington, D.C. (“a premier nonprofit educational, research, and service organization whose mission is to promote adult development in the workplace and in personal lives,” according to its website), discovered a mental disorder through years of research and analysis that he calls Empathy Deficit Disorder.
The disorder, which he says is running wilder than Hulkamania, prevents people from being able to see things from another person’s perspective and is responsible for a smorgasbord of ills, from relatively minor SNAFUs like divorce to that biggest of communication breakdowns, war.
His solution? Think happy thoughts. No, really. Here it is in his own words from the aforementioned Post article:
“Recent research shows that the capacity to feel what another person feels is hard-wired through what are called mirror neurons. Functional magnetic resonance imagery (fMRI) showed that brain regions involving both emotions and physical sensations light up in someone who observes or becomes aware of another person's pain or distress. Similarly, research shows that altruistic behavior lights up the pleasure centers of the brain usually associated with food or sex.
“Just as you can develop EDD by too much self-absorption, you can also overcome EDD by retraining your brain to take advantage of what is known as neuroplasticity. Similar research shows that as you refocus your thoughts, feelings and behavior in the direction you desire, the brain regions associated with them are reinforced. What's more, changing your brain activity reinforces the changes you're making in your thinking. The result is a self-reinforcing loop between your conscious attitudes, your behavior and your brain activity.
“By focusing on developing empathy, you can deepen your understanding and acceptance of how and why people do what they do and you can build respect for others. This doesn't mean that you are whitewashing the differences you have with other people or letting them walk over you. Rather, empathy gives you a stronger, wiser base for resolving conflicts and trumps self-centered, knee-jerk reactions to surface differences.”
So there you have it. When you pare down all the fancy-pants jargon, LaBier says that the answer to a shitton of our most pressing societal issues is to simply quit being jerks and focus on feeling for each other, even if we have to fake it. Simple, right?
Now, it would be quite easy to just dismiss these articles out of hand. Lord knows I did at first. In fact, my original plans for this article/editorial consisted of a series of wacky-schmacky put downs like this:
So they took douchebaggery and renamed it “Empathy Deficit Disorder?” What’s next? Renaming jealousy “Narcisistic Hypercovetousness (NHC)?” What are they gonna do with apathy? They can’t call it “Effort Deficit Disorder” because that acronym is already taken! Pfff. LaBier. More like “LaBrie.” Because he’s cheesy. And French. Which makes him gay.
You can thank me later for scrapping that approach.
After I thought about the articles for a while, I realized that my problem with them didn’t lie with the basic ideas that inspired them. Any reasonably informed person can easily see that there’s enough horrible stuff going on in the world concerning man’s inhumanity toward man for a person to conclude that we suffer from a considerable “empathy deficit,” if that’s what you want to call it.
My main issue with his assessment of the problem is that he’s far too optimistic about human nature.
People have been treating other people like shit ever since bipedal locomotion became all the rage. All those empire builders from B.C. and beyond kicked the crap out of everybody they came across and usually enslaved most of the people who were still fit enough to work. Christians have been fucking with anyone who isn’t them ever since they rose to power. Black people were only considered three-fifths of a person in the Constitution until 1868, and though we’ve made progress, we still haven’t reached the point where they’re considered whole people in all areas of our society. We’ve been locking up people just because they look like the people that we’re at war with ever since World War II. There’s the Holocaust, which I shouldn’t have to explain to anyone outside of Iran or Austria. And so much conflict has happened in the Middle East over the course of human civilization that you have to wonder if the Tigris and Euphrates flow with pure haterade.
These are, sadly, but a few of terrible things that we’ve done to each other during our time on this planet. I didn’t even get into all of the stuff that we’re doing to each other now. I’d need this entire issue and a sizeable chunk of the next.
So the question remains. Why haven’t we just sat down and tried to understand each other? Why don’t we just have a worldwide positivity party and synchronize our brain patterns so that we can have one big ol’ simultaneous empathy orgasm?
I can think of a few reasons:
When you go back and look at these articles, with all of the examples from the authors and interviewees, you can see that all of the things listed above are said to be major indicators of EDD. And that’s precisely my point. When has there been a time in human history when vast numbers of the population haven’t been dangerously and often willfully blind to other people’s situations, for all of the above reasons and more? Can you honestly look at yourself and say that you’ve never hit any of these roadblocks to understanding? I can’t.
Labeling this lack of understanding a disorder implies abnormality. Unfortunately, it’s one of the most normal parts of human existence.
So, what’s the fix? Who knows? An 80,000 year-old problem isn’t going to be solved in a thousand or so words, no matter how well written, how well spoken or how charged with positive energy they are.
Sorry, Dr. LaBier. I empathize. I really do. I know you had the best intentions. But intentions don’t mean shit when you’re just plain wrong.
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