Losing loved ones over different political opinions? You’re not alone

Picture credits: University of Louisville Department of Communication

Do you have a friend with whom you don’t feel like talking anymore just because he/she has a different opinion on the policies of your country’s President/Prime Minister? Do you often feel frustrated or angry because after so many years you’re getting to know his/her ‘actual’ political opinions? Do you feel sad that now your friendship is on the verge of becoming a void relationship? 

Trust me, you’re not alone. 

The modern world we are living in is constantly changing. Friendships are formed based on many factors: how long have you known someone, how common your interests are, etc. There is another parameter that has been added up in recent decades: politics. Yes, politics is also deciding if you are going to hang out with someone for a long time period. You are more likely to befriend with someone whose political opinion on a variety of political issues matches with yours than with someone who thinks in a completely opposite direction. I am not talking something that is purely fictional. I can speak for it because over the past year I have had many personal experiences where I didn’t feel like talking to some of my good friends because ‘I got to know the real them’. 

Surprised? I don’t think you should be surprised. A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre has shown that the political divide is the new normal of the modern world. It’s a reality of the 21st century. Jocelyn Kiley, who is an associate director of research at the Pew Research Centre said that the political divide is on the rise and it hasn’t been so prevalent at any point in modern history. According to Pew, nearly 80% of the Americans say that they have “a few” or “no friends” on the other side. In other words, people supporting the Democrats say they have no friends or few friends who support the Republicans. And the vice versa. The worst part is that the percentage is very high- 80%!!! There is hostility too towards each other. People are letting go off their friendships that are as long as 30 years old. Blocking each other on different social media platforms has become quite common these days. An episode done on the “All Things Considered” podcast by NPR reported a story of a man named Davis who is 42 years old. Davis is a consultant in the US. He is black. During the protests in the country against police brutality, Davis got a reality check of one of his close friends. When his friend tried downplaying police brutality he said he couldn’t take it. He told his friend, “If this is your attitude, we can’t be cool anymore. I don’t respect you now. I don’t. Because people are really dying.” A story of Shama Davis from Los Angeles is another example. Having a disagreement with his friend Shama said, “Dude, I am done. Lose my number.” He unfriended the person he has been friends with for almost 25 years. 

A survey conducted by Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) showed that 8 out of 10 Republicans believe Democrats are socialists while Democratic party believes Republicans are racists. It’s like both are pointing at each other. 

The topic is so interesting that even academicians could not refrain themselves from exploring more deeply. A study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships has dived into the political divisions among people. The study is authored by Elina Buliga and Cara MacInnis from the University of Calgary, Canada. Participants were recruited for the study. Out of the total number of participants 142 identified themselves as Liberals while 70 identified themselves as Conservatives. The researchers found that the participants were more inclined towards friends/strangers who shared the same political beliefs than those with different political opinions. Long and established relationships didn’t seem to matter in front of difference of opinion in the political matters. The study does have some shortcomings like not every individual jeopardises his/her relationship with closed ones for the sake of politics. Nevertheless, it points out an interesting and important finding on the political divisions in the modern world. 

What needs to be done now?

Tania Israel, a professor in the counselling, clinical and school psychology department at the University of California, Santa Barbara believes it is not wise to ruin our good old friendships over politics. She says that we must take the first step and talk to people in person. Which is completely right. We should not let social media come in between because that’s not a real world and opinions on social media platforms don’t matter much. It’s time that we become not only tolerant but also acceptable of other people. Talk to your loved ones. Listen what they have to say. Say what you have to say. Talk. Talk and talk. Just not about politics.  

Yuval Noah Harari: A Visionary Man Who Metamorphosed my Ideas about the World

Picture credits: Google Images

I was in the final year of my college when I first got to know there is a book called “SAPIENS: A Brief History of Humankind” that exists. It was one of my classmates who recommended me and my friend this book. For almost 3 years I couldn’t manage to complete this book. Eventually I did. Only a few days ago. 

Describing how the book was seems quite a naïve question. Usual answers coming from the readers are:

“Oh, it was great.”

“You should really read this book. This book changed my life.”

“Yeah, it’s a good book.”       

                                                

But I personally believe that describing this book is a very difficult task. Words do fall short when it comes to describing SAPIENS. I do not mean to sound rude but many people applaud this book and go back to living their lives with the same held beliefs and ideas including “Evolution is tricky. I am sceptical about it.” Such people don’t do justice with the book. I cannot speak for everyone but my ideas have been made better after reading this book. I can speak for myself that my intellect is not the same as before. I am glad that it isn’t. 

Dr Yuval Noah Harari earned his PHD from the University of Oxford in History. He is now a full time professor at Hebrew University and his specialisation is in World History. His book Sapiens is an international bestseller and has been published in more than 30 languages worldwide. In the year 2012, Professor Harari received the annual Polonsky Prize for his work full of creativity and imagination. Dr Harari published another book in the year 2015 and it’s titled “HOMO DEUS: A Brief History of Tomorrow”. This book is about humankind’s future- where we are heading and what our future looks like. Homo Deus is followed by another incredible read “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”. The book is about our present. Dr Harari believes there are 3 problems revolving around heads and we must address them immediately: ecological collapse, technological disruption and nuclear war. Technological disruption is the most tricky one because our pace of technological developments is very fast and even we don’t know where is it we are heading or what is it that we are striving for. 

Cognitive revolution did give us some advantages over other human species including Homo Neanderthals, Homo Erectus, etc. What set us apart was our ability to believe in fictional stories. These fictional stories made us co-operate with our fellows in large numbers. We did manage to create imagined realities and they proved to be very helpful and necessary. Only a limited number of chimpanzees can stay in a room with one another. However, millions of humans co-operate with each other  (majorly strangers) just because they share the same imagined realities. Agricultural revolution changed the course of life of the hunter gatherers forever. When they settled, towns and cities began emerging. This was the period in human history which caused population explosion. More mouths meant a need to grow more and the vicious cycle continued. Scientific revolution has changed things to another level. An excerpt from the book SAPIENS beautifully captures the whole idea:

In 1500, humans were confined to the earth’s surface. They could build towers and climb mountains, but the sky was reserved for birds, angels and deities. On 20 July 1969, humans landed on the moon. This was not merely a historical achievement but an evolutionary and cosmic feat. During the previous 4 billions years of evolution, no organism managed even to leave the earth’s atmosphere, and certainly none left a foot or tentacle print on the moon.”

The world is changing at a much faster pace than anyone could have ever imagined. Technology, nevertheless, has made our lives better. Modern Science has managed to increase our life expectancy. Communication has become so much easier. In no time I can send a professor in the US an e-mail. Did pre-historic humans ever expect such a thing happening in the future? I don’t think so. However, our big problem is that even we are blank when it comes to asking ourselves: 

“WHAT IS IT THAT WE WANT?”

“WHAT WILL BE THE END OF OUR DESIRES?”

“WHERE DO WE SEE OURSELVES IN THE COMING YEARS?”

Dr Harari believes it is high time we grab on an ancient philosophy proposed by Aristotle- KNOW THYSELF. Seriously, we should become self- introspective and question our needs, wants, desires, etc. We should spend time knowing ourselves better than the corporations and government. Companies and governments are playing with our psychology to fulfil their self-interests. Politicians need power and authority. Corporations need profits. What about us? They don’t care about us. We are merely puppets in their hands. This is exactly why we need to start devoting some time into knowing ourselves better and more. Do we really need that new phone if our old one is working just fine? Do we really need that new furniture when our current furniture is only 6 months old? 

Question. Question and question.

I am going to end this blog with a quote by my favourite thinker, Dr Harari:

“I encourage all of us, whatever our beliefs, to question the basic narratives of our world, to connect past developments with present concerns, and not to be afraid of controversial issues.”

Against Empathy. Really?

Picture credits: Coonoor.medium.com

Imagine I am walking down a road to buy some groceries. On the sidewalk I see a homeless man who is begging for money. Some people give him the money while others pass by as if he doesn’t exist. I, on the other hand, trying my best to use my psychology degree to understand my own emotions while looking at a homeless man. Humans feel diverse emotions in their everyday lives. We feel anger, disgust, love, sadness, empathy, jealousy, envy, compassion, etc. We cannot eliminate these emotions altogether. But when they start getting out of our control (especially negative emotions) we should pause for a moment, accept what we are feeling and deal with them with utmost calmness and patience. 

Empathy is one of the emotions that is in spotlight because recent data in experimental psychology clearly says that it is good for our overall well-being. We should be kind and empathetic towards people and if we believe it is hard we can always become one through continuous practice. Empathy is about putting ourselves in other people’s shoes. It’s about feeling what they are feeling. Nothing wrong with that, eh? Well, looks like someone thinks a bit differently. Paul Bloom, a professor of Psychology at Yale University has written a book called “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion”. You can say that this post is inspired by his argumentin the book. Professor Bloom argues that empathy is a poor moral guide. It exhausts and drains us completely. Going back to the scenario I mentioned at the beginning of this post, if I am going to be empathetic towards the homeless man then I will be putting myself in his situation. I’ll be feeling what he is feeling in that moment. I cannot speak for everyone but I am pretty sure I’ll be having a hard time to control myself because seeing someone in a situation where they are unable to meet their basic requirements is not easy. I’ll be drained emotionally, at least for some time. 

What should I do then? Should I just shut off my moral engine and become a misanthrope? No. I am not supposed to perceive the world as ‘me’ v/s ‘them’. Rather, what professor Bloom says is we should practice another emotion and that’s compassion. Compassion is about caring about other people but not necessarily feeling their suffering. So, in the case of an imagined homeless man compassion will allow me to care about him but not feel his suffering to an extent that I myself start suffering. There is a fine line between empathy and compassion but rather an important one. Clinical studies have also been done on empathy and compassion and their findings are quite interesting. Tania Singer, a social neuroscientist at the Max Planck Society in Germany is very well known in the study of empathy and compassion. She and her colleagues conducted a study where some participants were asked to practice empathy meditation and others compassion meditation. Their brain activities were recorded under a fMRI scanner. It was found that empathy was unpleasant and exhausting. On the other hand, compassion was exhilarating and more positive. 

In his book professor Bloom talked about two kinds of empathy: cognitive and emotional. Cognitive empathy is a kind of empathy that allows us to process other people’s motivations, plans, etc. In other words, we are able to understand the mental state of others. So, if one of my good friends lost her job and I am able to understand why she is feeling sad or disappointed then I am probably practising cognitive empathy. However, in case of emotional empathy I will start putting myself in her shoes and start experiencing every little emotion she is feeling. This will not only be debilitating for me but I will also fail to help her out of the situation because I, too, am messed up. Empathy is said to be biased: we tend to be more empathetic towards people who are our loved ones than anonymous strangers. This eventually narrows down the scope of empathy. As Mother Teresa rightly put it, “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” 

A relationship between a client and therapist might make the argument more concrete. If a therapist during a counselling session practices empathy then he or she will be very exhausted. It is because by being empathetic the therapist is feeling everything his or her client is feeling: all the emotions. This is not good as it will cloud therapist’s ability to act rationally and professionally. The whole rationale behind the psychotherapy will remain unfulfilled. 

Before becoming the president of The United States of America, Barack Obama gave a speech and an excerpt of his speech 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.

Mr Obama was right when he appealed to everyone to be empathetic towards people who are distant strangers. Empathy does play a crucial role: when we are empathetic we tend to help people more. I highly doubt if that is a bad thing. But if that same empathy starts to back fire we need to keep aside our empathy and be more compassionate.