Issue #31: Empathy and Belonging

"Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place." — Daniel Pink

The Future of Belonging examines how we can redesign tools and remodel approaches to fulfill the basic human need for belonging over the next decade as loneliness, alienation, and exclusion become more pervasive. If this newsletter was shared with you, please thank the sender. I invite you to subscribe and join the community as well.

I had a wonderful time speaking at my first ever CMX Summit on Tuesday during my talk “Leveraging Tech for the Future of Belonging.” One of the attendees asked how to create and sustain spaces for belonging as you bring in multiple points of view. Conventional wisdom tells us to take the high road: hold people to high expectations and they will rise to meet them. New entrants will simply adopt the ways of being, thinking and interacting and the community will remain as a safe space, furnishing the emotional connection, meaning and sense making as it did before.

However, 2020 has shown us that conventional wisdom may have lost its relevance. At a minimum, we are questioning truths that we believed to be constant. Although we are hearing louder calls for empathy in our social interactions and our communities and networks, we should reconsider if this is the silver bullet that conventional wisdom and official futures would have us believe that it is.

Michelle Obama revisted this 2016 quote in her speech at the 2020 DNC convention, pushing back on the assumption that going high meant always turning the other cheek with a smile plastered on one’s face. The tactful response is not always the empathetic response. In 2020, she revisited this quote, challenging the blind acceptance it seemed to suggest.

Going high means standing fierce against hatred while remembering that we are one nation under God, and if we want to survive, we’ve got to find a way to live together and work together across our differences.

Amid our concurrent crises of the pandemic, racial injustice and recession, we must recognize our empathy deficit.

Whenever people are troubled or hurting or dealing with serious problems, they want to feel that other people understand what they are going through and are concerned. But opportunities to give and receive empathy feel less than adequate these days: decreased social interaction, online get-togethers, air hugs and masked conversations are not quite up to the task—and people are often so preoccupied with their own struggles that they aren’t as attuned to other people’s problems as they otherwise might be. …People everywhere lack the sense that others care, which makes the medical, economic, political and societal assaults on our fundamental trust in the world even harder to handle.

In this vein, I believe that empathy over the next decade will require us to navigate this tension. We must stand fierce in defense of our boundaries in our sociocultural networks, communities and social infrastructure. But we must also strive for greater openness and vulnerability in our interpersonal relationships to nurture and sustain the interconnectedness and resilience we require for belonging. It’s important to know that is feeling alone but a call for action in service of care and emotional connection. To do the labor of being present and witnessing the person or persons in need of empathy.

The tech industry has discussed empathy the last few years, but outside of Silicon Valley, you would not be mistaken if empathy was not part of your online conversation. That is, until the tweet heard ‘round the world posted at roughly 11 pm PT on October 1 where Trump announced his positive COVID diagnosis. Now, there are scores of articles revisiting empathy in the public sphere and open debates about the merits of Twitter positing disciplinary action for those wishing for his death. We’ve switched from doomscrolling about mass hysterectomies of women in ICE custody to schadenscrolling quips, memes and video reactions to the steady drumbeat of headlines covering the White House administration outbreak.

This unfortunately is not the first time that we’ve debated the moral merits forgoing the high road of empathy in favor of our instincts to rejoice in the violence or misfortune of morally bankrupt people. In 2017, neo-Nazi turned alt-right influencer Richard Spencer was punched on camera during an interview, spawning a bumper crop of “punch a Nazi” memes. Soon followed the question, “Is it OK to punch a Nazi?”

You can’t empathize or “feel with” someone who doesn’t feel at all or weaponizes emotion and compassion. We can’t feel safe around an individual or group of people that advocate the immiseration or eradication of others. We can’t feel emotionally connected to people who exhibit sociopathic behavior. And there is no meaning or sense making to find in the callous disregard for human life.

Empathy requires reciprocity and equity. Each party holds space to feel with and understand each other. There is no belonging without feeling. There is no belonging absent a desire to understand. Twitter faced criticism of employing double standards over the recent policy to subject users to suspension or de-platforming if their moderators found users wishing for Trump’s death. Public figures including “The Squad” and a myriad of Black and Brown women rightly pointed out the platform failed to protect them from abuse, apparently upholding an implied principle that digital empathy is only available for those already in power.

There are limits to empathy as it is subject to misuse and manipulation. Centering belonging can help to delineate these limits especially in our sociocultural environment when considering the extreme: fascist movements. Empathetic responses only rubber stamp the binary emotionality of fascism. Rather than meeting violence with violence or abuse with unwarranted empathy, humor serves as a subversive pathway to share facts and propel action without incurring trauma or condoning antisocial behavior. Last weekend, LGBTQIA Twitter users flooded the #ProudBoys hashtag with celebrations of queer culture as well as satire. Zoomers and K-Pop fans have done the same to the #whitepower hashtag.

We run the risk of sanitizing empathy to a point where it’s poisonous to belonging. Toxic positivity weaponizes empathy in service of tolerating abuse to support the pursuit of power and influence over others. As we can’t feel our way into understanding across distancing from loved ones, amid chaos and disconnection, and through technology, we turns to technology to bridge the deficit in chatbots, voice assistants, and robotic and digital companions. Even as software and devices grow exponentially to understand us, we don’t have the opportunity to reciprocate in exercising empathy. Much like sugar substitutes, pretend empathy from algorithms leaves a bitter aftertaste especially in the absence of the real thing.

“But this new kind of machine intimacy entails no vulnerability. And intimacy without vulnerability is not intimacy at all—and does nothing to prepare us for real intimacy. What is at stake is our capacity for empathy, that ability to put ourselves in the place of the other.”

The official technology future for virtual reality describes the platform as the empathy machine. Immersive media like VR is more emotional evocative and elicits many of the same physical reactions we might have when exercising empathy with a human. Yale professor Paul Bloom notes where this “empathy machine” concept falls short:

[Imagine] a machine giving you empathetic feelings for someone who has been assaulted by an undocumented immigrant. Sure, empathy will support my side, but it’s not trivial to imagine how empathy could be exploited for any side. … Yes, empathy can also ignore broader incentives. Policy issues are notoriously difficult and complicated and it’s a deep mistake to assume that if we could feel more, then the world would turn out OK and we would do the right thing. Not everything is the job of the individual citizen.

While it’s wonderful that VR can allow us to walk in the shoes of someone else, it’s also a simulation of experience and feeling. Empathy created via VR is inherently an othering process. We don’t really know what it’s like to be an undocumented immigrant or refugee with a single VR experience. And depending on a number of attributes like openness, these attempts to build empathy can backfire, ultimately diminishing the belonging the technology hopes to foster. Relying on VR to scale empathy puts the onus on individuals to remedy systemic inequality and oppression and solve belonging.

Rather than opening ourselves to the equivalent of a DDoS attack on our empathy systems as immersive technology scales, we need to recognize that empathy is both necessary and finite. And it’s truly exhausting. I’ve called this mishmash of exhaustion, sadness, and connection an emotional hangover. That feeling that you get when you’ve had a couple too many shots of vulnerability and empathy that overwhelms your boundaries. We can’t have a world that lives on 100% empathy for all people 24/7/365.

But we can and we should flex our empathy muscle for the sake of richer interpersonal relationships that can eventually remediate our empathy deficit. And like a physical workout, we need to exercise in moderation. One technique for practicing: reading fiction. To enjoy fiction, we have to exercise our imagination to see ourselves in the characters and process the emotions they feel. More specifically, exploring fiction that envisions a world of greater belonging such as solar punk and social fiction.

We can also learn and practice more authentic approaches to practicing empathy such as authentic relating that help us attune to the feelings and needs of others and strengthen our interconnectedness.

Authentic relating uses exercises, or games, to teach and facilitate the skills, like curiosity and empathy, necessary to quickly create deep, meaningful human connection. In a period when loneliness is increasing as our avenues for connecting expand, practitioners tell me they are drawn to a community that makes conversing and relating with one another an intentional activity—one with guidelines and structure designed to elicit intimacy.

Rather than digital technology, we need more human technology — new narratives, games, and conversations to shift how and when we are emotionally present and vulnerable — to build a world of greater belonging.


Upcoming Events

  • If you’d like to join this collective journey of imagining the future of belonging, RSVP to the next Future of Belonging interactive meetup on October 13 at 5:30 pm PT/8:30 pm ET at http://bit.ly/belongingOct2020. We will have fun co-creating on Miro.

  • PS. I’d love it if you’d share this post with folks you care about. Let’s build the future of belonging together!

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