False Dichotomies and the Human Capacity for Empathy

Life has many black and white choices. Choices that are mutually exclusive, opportunities which directly cancel or negate each other. Yes, I could go to dinner with my boss, but I’ll miss that concert. I could buy that new car, but then I can’t afford that vacation. We are posed with such decisions constantly. And yet these decisions make up only a small fraction of the choices we face on a daily, monthly, or yearly basis.

Life’s choices might often be black and white, however, they are overwhelmingly grey. Clear choices, those transitive decisions of clearly-set logic that we all desire are actually quite rare, and instead we make decisions based on our moral compass, our vast experience, our immediate environment, a set of perceived outcomes… a whole host of factors.

Where the problem of choice lies in ourselves, I think, is that we too often lust for the opportunity to make things clearly defined as black and white. It’s easier. Grey is inherently more difficult, more factors must be applied to the decision making process whereas black and white provides us with an irrefutable dichotomy. But that dichotomy, those dichotomies, rarely exist. It seems we try to create them more often than not.

I was thinking about this for a number of reasons. One of the biggest news stories in the world for the past week, as I’m sure you know, is the poaching of Cecil the Lion who was a nationally recognized and prized asset of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. He was poached illegally by an American big game hunter. The outrage over this incident has dominated international media, and opinions/reactions to the story have been widespread and I think sometimes ridiculous.

One ridiculous response I saw was a bad meme saying something along the lines of “25% of Zimbabwean children are threatened by starvation… and people are angry about a dead feral cat”. People’s ability to care about the poaching of wild game in Africa should not, and I hope does not exclude their ability to care about the lack of resources available to people living in Africa. The opposite is obviously true as well. So then why does the meme even exist? And why can we even relate to it or find humor in it?

I think because of the false dichotomies that we often try to create for ourselves. It makes processing the story easier and more compact, but in doing so limits the ability to exercise one of our most human traits; The ability to exercise empathy, care, compassion, worry, and mental discipline for the well-being of another storyline or object. I’ve seen it sometimes that someone expressing a desire to protect, enact change for, or work towards a cause can themselves be perceived as being mutually dismissive to the ability to feel for another cause.

There is no testable limit to the human memory, so why would there be a limit to the human ability to care, to empathize? And in any case, for what reason would any individual seek to lessen their ability to care. It’s unfortunate to see a pattern where people might seem to deliberately limit their own ability to care, or limit that ability in others rather than championing each others ability to care and cheer for several different causes simultaneously.

A few days ago amid the Cecil madness I posted a Facebook update describing my outrage at the incident. About how poaching is sickening, but my main point was a disgust in the thriving habit of senseless cyber-bullying and internet demonization that occurs more frequently all the time, and that somehow our culture sees it as increasingly justifiable.

The backlash over Walter Palmer’s actions have led to a huge score of internet shaming, personal and private attacks, and also a number of death threats. Media in turn reports on these matters nonchalantly, and we in turn receiving such news can internalize and subconsciously build a desensitization towards such actions. This has never been and never should be okay. Death threats and massive senseless internet shaming should never be okay.

I do want to say that your opinion can totally diverge from mine. It can come from a different background of experience, different lifestyle, a number of things, so you might disagree with what I say next. That’s fine. That’s what keeps our world diverse anyways. So in my opinion, what I found most disturbing was not only the act of poaching (again, I loathe it) but also the mindless cyber-bullying that followed it. As if death threats were simply the natural evolution of vigilante cyber justice and the increasingly terrifying mass of the internet mob mentality.

I am however, careful to use the terms ‘senseless’ and ‘mindless’ cyber-bullying and internet shaming, because there are times when this recourse might serve some purpose. In that Facebook post that I previously mentioned, my friend Curtis, who I was stationed in Sierra Leone with and who will soon re-deploy with Peace Corps to Mozambique, brought up what I think is a more real solution to the Walter Palmer mess. What is an impact-ful, reasonable, online response. That is; people educating themselves to what should be the proper form of handling Walter Palmer’s punishment, in addition to signing a petition, that if successful, will have him extradited to Zimbabwe to be properly charged.

In another example, Anonymous, the vigilante internet justice group that wedges itself into countless big and small stories, sometimes uses such tactics relatively tastefully. An example being the ‘anime’ -ization of twitter accounts associated with the Islamic State. Although a relatively small move, it provides a humorous softening of an overly politically and religiously charged situation, and in doing so is probably helping in some small way to de-radicalize or stop pre-radicalization of at-risk individuals.

My point from those examples is that we can outwardly condemn an action without responding in a way that perpetuates a possibly equally bad action. I see that as being a trapping of the false dichotomy. Because according to that false dichotomy, if what Walter Palmer did was so obviously wrong, then me attacking him in any way possible online is right. Well no, it’s clearly not.

We can choose to condemn both poaching and cyber bullying, we do not have to denounce one while strengthening the other. So condemn them both. Condemn both poaching and cyber-bullying in all of their forms. There are far better ways to approach the problem of the former away from reinforcing or fueling the latter, and we all have the capacity to not only simultaneously support many different causes, but also to condemn many different evils when need be.

So as a point of personal practice, I’m going to do a better job myself of trying to avoid the trappings of false dichotomies. In moments where I have to condemn several things, I will. Otherwise I’ll be over here in my corner cheering for as many causes as I reasonably can.

One thought on “False Dichotomies and the Human Capacity for Empathy

  1. Very well written, Dawson. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I agree that cyber bullying is way too prevalent. I think relative anonymity leads others to believe that they can say whatever they want. Good for you to see this truth.

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