Saturday, May 29, 2004

Empathy and Oppression

Today, I would like to discuss the lack of a very important characteristic I have observed in the world today. Empathy is a very powerful force, if included as a tool in one's every day life. However, as one looks across this planet, the realization that although optimism may be the current theme, or perhaps the thirst for war and expansion pervasive in a given culture may dominate, what lacks in both scenarios is often times Empathy. One's perspective is forever changed if that person can put themselves in another person's shoes. Not many people have the capacity to try to fully understand the motivation of another, even if it's that of an enemy. Anywhere you look, countless atrocities are being committed, and yet, the ignorance of how negative an impact those can have continue, because of a lack of empathy, a lack of trying to understand another persons motivation.
As I look at the actions that the American government is taking (against our will and that of the worldwide populace), I am reminded how lacking in empathy many of the leaders and their ignorant supporters are. Now I realize, some may think, "oh empathy, what a weak word, I'd be a pussy if I thought that way", but in reality, it's what defines us as human beings. Not to say that chimpanzees or other greater apes, can't relate to such a base emotion, but at least for human beings, we can rationalize our thoughts, and force ourselves to think that way, not as an instinctual reaction, but in a thoughtful and calculating perspective.
When the President of the US, along with his cohorts of ignorance decided to invade Iraq, or when Ariel Sharon, decided to invade Gaza, I doubt they ever paused to think why the negative reaction from the people they were oppressing. Let's be honest, there is no such thing as democratic leadership, when you force your will on somebody else. This is oppression through-and-through, and no semantic dodging can say otherwise.
The Palestinians, especially through the American Media, and probably many other Western media (though not in the same extent), are portrayed as as domestic terrorists, people who are hell-bent on destroying Israel and all it exists for. What we are not being told is that many of the Palestinians are honest, educated people, trying to raise a family in an environment so unstable that the threat of death lingers constantly. The importance of this Palestinian example can be assessed with Empathy towards their cause. If one could put themselves in the shoes of a Palestinian, they would fully understand their plight. The Palestinians are stripped of everything they have, their economy is in shambles, their educational system is in ruins, they are constantly under curfew, their lands are snatched away from them, walls are being to enclose them, water is being diverted away from what fraction of territory is left. Add to this, the constant humiliation, old women and men, being stripped at checkpoints, whole families being stopped and forced to wait for hours going from one village to another, father's humiliated in front of their sons, and countless other such practices. If I was Palestinian, truth be told, I would react the same way. Most of the suicide bombers are highly educated people, some are physicians, lawyers, others undergraduates, almost all of them are highly versed, intelligent individuals. They are not sociopaths or blood thirsty killers, but people who have reached a breaking point. The most dangerous person in the world is one who has nothing.
Now, it may be hard to empathize with Palestinians, because of the difference in their situation, but as an example, imagine, especially if you're North American, that China, decides to invade. Taking America as an example, imagine that in 10 years, China, with the worlds largest standing army, and a strength of a superpower decides, that enough is enough, the world can't stand the American brand of Democracy. Instead, China will invade, and instill their own leader, because they know what's best for the American people. Now, how many American's would just sit at home and take it? All those supporters of Iraq's invasion, or sympathizers of Israel, would suddenly realize, hey, we have to attack these invading Chinese. At least, we have weapons at our disposal, the Second Amendment to the constitution provides us weapons, but imagine an Army of Chinese with automatic weapons, not much match in the suburbs. And we, would do anything to maintain our sovereignty, even if it means suicide bombing.
Although some Islamic extremists do reach the breaking point and justify their actions in the name of their religion, or in the name of Allah or whatever, it doesn't necessarily mean their religion is to blame. You can't judge a people by the religious extremists in their society. An example can be made for Christianity. Jesus never said "I bequeath my will upon you, that should thy nation have the power to control thy world, though shalt forcibly remove those that should stand in thy way". Although Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, Rice, and the rest claim it is the will of the Lord, of of how much they admire Jesus, their actions point otherwise. These people are nothing but ignorant morons. Some may have an education, and perhaps publicly they claim spirituality, but in reality, these people are cold, calculating oppressors.
If Americans realized the extent of our oppression, then we would rise up and have a revolution. I'm not talking about a revolution with arms, or maoist philosophy, but a revolution of passive resistance. Although Gandhi may be dead, his spirit lives on. Anywhere there's oppression, one must fight against it, preferably intellectually. The roots of the United States are a fight against oppression, and here we are, hundreds of years later, facing the same.
One should thus elect a leader, who not only is diplomatic, but also empathetic to the world. One who cares most and has the greatest empathy for it's own citizens, but also realizes the plight of others in the world. These kinds of leaders are scarce, and should they ever be elected, they would be gunned down in a blink of an eye. Real leaders are balancers, they can balance complex issues, without reverting to childish notions such as Good and Evil, God vs Devil, etc.
To arrive at an absolute truth then, one must strive to understand the plight of others, strive to empathize with even their worst enemy. I'm not saying that one should make friends with their enemy, survival is the most important, if it's you against your enemy, then you will fight, if you don't then you're not a successful human being. At some point, we must all stand our ground and fight, but even then, it won't hurt to take a moment to empathise and understand your enemy's perspective. It doesn't take anything away from yourself, or your cause, but it does lead to a greater understanding.
As an Armenian hearing stories of the Genocide (1915-1923) perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks and resulting in the decimation of our population and homeland, there is nothing that could justify such an event. Yet, even then, I can try to empathise and understand why the Turks did what they did. In their own limited mind-set, they thought they were preserving their culture. Their tactics were brutal and inhuman, and nothing can justify those actions, but to come to a greater understanding, one must understand their actions. The same can be said for the September 11th terrorist act. Although the truth behind it is still quite sketchy, and there are a lot of people running around trying to cover it up, the fact is that suddenly, terrorist hit close to home, and people reacted at first out of anger and fear. This is understandable, but at the same time, it's beneficial to try to understand why these group of people did what they did. Why did they terrorize the country, what caused them to attack what most people domestically consider a rather benign populace. Trying to explain it, and empathize and understand their actions, doesn't justify what they did. It just helps to arrive at a greater understanding. There are always 2 sides to everything, one man's evil is another's hero, and somebody's terrorist is another's freedom fighter or martyr. It's not easy for me to try to understand the actions of the Turks, in fact, I battle constantly with myself due to this inner conflict, but ultimately, understating both sides doesn't justify any wrongdoing, or irresponsible actions, it just helps to arrive at a greater understanding of the situation. The same can be said of the Holocaust, Khmer Rouge Massacres, Rwanda, Kosovo (even though now, the sides have turned and it's the Albanians oppressing the Serbs, which even then, it was 50/50, not just only Serbs against Albanians).
An intelligent person can understand the difference between empathy and justification. Just because one can empathize with an enemy, doesn't necessarily mean those actions of one's enemy is justified. Empathy is useful not just with one's enemy, but with anybody else in the planet. Trying to understand the plight of others isn't so difficult if one can, even for a second, place themselves in another persons shoes. At the same time, one must strive to not only empathize, but also understand the culture, read not just newsprint media, but an encyclopedia every now and then to get a full global understanding and perspective.

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