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   Zero Degrees of Empathy
Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma
18 Sep 2012

Idea of a universal solvent

Why people at times behave the most evil way, not counting others as humans but as mere object which can be tossed around like lifeless entities? Oblivious of grievous injury they cause to others, such persons remain unconcerned about any physical and emotional damage thus inflicted. Conditioned by what Prof. Simon Baron-Cohen calls ‘empathy erosion’, such people lack ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling. In simple terms, the language we can use to describe such a trait would be totally self-focused. Recent research now suggests that people’s position on the empathy spectrum can be affected by both genes and the environment that they live in.

Using real-life cases, Baron-Cohen talks us through a variety of conditions in which the ability to empathize is reduced, leading to the possibility of a violent behavior. In saying so, it is being sympathetically suggested that such so-called ‘evildoers’ are not necessarily irredeemable. This seems an important insight, given the fact that with ‘empathy’ we have a resource to resolve conflict, increase community cohesion and dissolve another person’s pain. Assessing empathy mechanism on both genetic and psychiatric scales, Baron-Cohen makes a compelling argument: ‘unless empathy is employed across conflicting situations across the world, from Washington to Baghdad, more lives are and will be lost’.

The sooner the unempathic acts are erased the better it is because the footprints of such acts can stay longer than desired. Back in 1542, Martin Luther wrote a pamphlet entitled On the Jews and Their Lies; wherein he had advocated (to the Christians) that synagogues should be burned and Jewish homes should be destroyed. Four hundred years later, the young Adolf Hitler quoted Martin Luther in Mein Kampf to give his own Nazi racist views some respectability, thereby ending up the lives of six million Jews in the concentration camps. And in the absence of empathy, Hitler was bereft of any guilt for his actions.

Empathy, concludes Baron-Cohen, is like a universal solvent. From interpersonal problems to international conflicts and from family disputes to political deadlocks, any problem immersed in empathy becomes soluble. Since it is secular in nature, empathy, unlike religion, cannot oppress anyone. If such be it powers, why is empathy missing from most universal agendas? Read this immensely compellingly book to find out!

Zero Degrees of Empathy
by Simon Baron-Cohen
Penguin Books, UK
193 pages, UK£ 9.99.

 Other books reviewed by Dr Sudhirendar Sharma
Features > Book Shelf
Spoiling Tibet
Posting Date: 28 Feb 2014

A Journey in the Future of Water
Posting Date: 28 Feb 2014

Yamuna Manifesto
Posting Date: 28 Feb 2014

Corruption Watch

The bad news is that corruption has not only sustained but has grown in size and stature in the country. With scams being a regular feature, seventy per cent respondents in a survey have rightfully opined that corruption has continued to increase in India. One in every two interviewed admit having paid a bribe for availing public services during last one year. Transparency International's latest survey reveals that the political parties top the chart for the most corrupt public institutions, followed by police force and legislatures. No wonder, India continues to make new records on the global corruption arena!

The shocking revelation is that the health and education sectors haven't remained untouched by this phenomenon. With 5th and 6th positions respectively for these sectors on the public perception chart on corruption, corruption has crept insidiously into these sectors of hope for the masses. With bureaucracy being fourth in the list of corrupt institutions in the country, corruption seems to have been non-formally institutionalized with little hope if public services would ever be effective in the country. With economic growth having literally institutionalized corruption, are we now expecting corrupt to be socially responsible - a different CSR.

Poor. Who?

Not giving 'aid' to India is one thing but calling it 'rich' is quite another. If one in three of the world's malnourished children live in India, what does average daily income of $3 indicate? It perhaps means that there is a relative decline in poverty - people are 'less poor' than what they used to be in the past. But having crossed the World Bank arbitrary threshold of $2 a day does not absolve the 'developed' countries of their obligation to part with 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income in development aid. Should this three-decade old figure not be revised?  

An interesting debate in UK's House of Commons delved on future of development assistance by the British Government. While prioritizing limited resources has been a concern, there has been no denying the fact that development aid must be guided towards tangible gains over a short period of time to start with. There are difficult choices for elected governments to make - should they invest in long-term primary education or in short-term university scholarships? Which of these will bring gains and trigger long-term transformation in the society. As politicians continue to be divided on the matter, poverty persists!!   

Lead View
People, Partition and the Pain
By Rina Mukherji
15 Aug 2013

Dr Jayanti Basu's book analyzes the complex feelings of hatred and longing for the homeland that have contributed to shaping the personalities of a generation of people who were forced to ..
Book Shelf

Yamuna Manifesto

A Journey in the Future of Water

Spoiling Tibet

On Western Terrorism
Devinder Sharma
Carmen Miranda
Pandurang Hegde
Sudhirendar Sharma
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