In his commencement speech at Northwestern University in 2006, then-Senator Barack Obama averted the thinking of graduates from the federal deficit to something more central to the American spirit. "We should talk more about our empathy deficit — the ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us — the child who's hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room."
It's likely the immigrant was from South America then, but today she might have been from Somalia. Or Syria. And we're trying to keep her out because we are growing frightened — as a nation — of Muslims. There are many forces pushing us in that direction. Consciously or unconsciously the news media is among them.
Choices are made for every newspaper layout, and the story order for every television and radio newscast. In the placement of news pieces we may find ourselves raging against the cruelty of Muslim extremists at the same time as feeling sorry for their victims. The right-hand column details grisly atrocities committed by the Islamist groups Islamic State, Boko Haram and other yet-to-be-identified "jihadists;" we are stricken by the loss of architectural glories from the past. Beneath the fold our hearts twinge with sorrow as we read hopelessly about people dying of starvation in the Syrian town of Madaya.
The perpetrators are Muslim. And so are most of the victims.
The perpetrators are Muslim. And so are most of the victims. But unlike the perpetrators, the victims are identified not by religion, unless they happen to be Christian, Jewish or Yazidi, Rather we know them by nationality: Syrian, Iraqi, Turkish. When the Muslim extremist group Islamic State attacked the Syrian town of Aleppo, Muslims are murdered, displaced and suffer. But we know the victims as Syrian. Maps, memes and charts may affirm that the largest number of victims of the Islamic State, the Taliban, al Shabaab and Boko Haram are Muslim, but they are not identified as such in mass media. Effectively, the media is creating and perpetuating an empathy-free information zone around Muslims.
Much is made real in language, written or spoken.
Language can create visceral emotional experiences, asserts neuroscientist George Lakoff, "which is why people read novels or go to movies or watch TV shows." With repeated reading and viewings we generate realities and certainties about others, justifying collective praise or punishment, fomenting a mob mentality against perceived barbarians at the gate. Recent presidential debates reverberate with angry energy whipped up by candidates against one another and against the other, most notably, Muslims. This is not good for our nation or for international relations in our ever-shrinking world.
Media and pundits toy with accuracy and identifications in ways that imperil public perspective on "the Muslim problem." The desperate migration to Europe of terrified refugees who have lost everything, including beloved family members, is construed as a "Muslim" issue rather than one of immigration and support for those in need. Did the "civilized" world not learn from the Holocaust that welcome — not rejection — works in the face of persecution? Twenty years ago a Jewish friend and I were discussing the horrific war in Bosnia, where rape was officially recognized as a weapon of war. My friend, an obstetrician specializing in high-risk pregnancy, noted, "If those were Jewish women being raped, the United States wouldn't be standing by."
For Muslims, the empathy-free zone was already in place.
Add inaccurate reporting to the mix. One of today's tales about Islam and Muslims is that they are new to "the West," with strange and potentially threatening values. We're concerned that France, with its Muslim population swelling to nearly 10 percent, is suddenly hosting the largest proportion of Muslims of any nation in Europe. Not so. Albania is nearly 80 percent Muslim; Bosnia, more than 60 percent Muslim; Macedonia nearly 35 percent; and Montenegro over 18 percent. France's sister EU member, Bulgaria, has a Muslim population of 13 percent, easily outnumbering Muslims in France as a percentage. The difference is that Bulgarian Muslims (like those in the EU candidate states noted above) have lived in Europe for more than 600 years and are integrated at all levels of culture, society and government.
Islam is not new to Europe. It came to the Continent with Muslims over the course of 700 years, between the 8th and 15th centuries, when people began enjoying a height of civilization unknown theretofore. Islam came to the Americas with Muslim explorers onboard Christopher Columbus' ships. Then another 2 million arrived on slave ships. Scholars say nearly 20 percent of the Africans brought to American shores in bondage were Muslim. Today in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, it's hard to tell a Muslim corn-fed Husker from a non-Muslim. Syrian Muslim immigrants to America settled along the Cedar River in the late 1800s.
Today in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, it's hard to tell a Muslim corn-fed Husker from a non-Muslim.
Yet the context in which we learn about these neighbors is one of otherness and fear. Migration across the seas to European shores is presented as a duality of emotional choices: Are we to sympathize with families that seek what we also seek — hope and a future for our children? Or do we fear the onslaught of an unfamiliar system of values? "Fear is, you know, one of our natural emotions," says Lakoff. "So if you have fear, what that does to maintain safety is to shut down empathy with your attacker."
Even reporters, objective as they strive to be, will experience fears, and that can add, unconsciously, to empathy-free reporting on Muslims. Adding human fears to the context of a "culture that discourages empathy," according to president-to-be Obama in 2006, rhetorically strengthens an anti-empathy cycle that, if left uninterrupted, may be detrimental to everyone's safety. Former NBC anchor Ann Curry agrees. "Empathy offers us the greatest hope for our future."
Lakoff suggests we teach our children to care about other people because if they don't we're going to end up with a society in which people don't care about each other. "It's very important to overcome that fear and to cultivate that empathy. And I can't stress how important childhood is. By the time you are five, half of your neuro-connections die." Rogers and Hammerstein said as much in 1949 in their hit musical South Pacific: "You've got to be taught before it's too late, before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate! You've got to be carefully taught."
In The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity, Jeffrey Sachs urges:
"We need to reconceive the idea of a good society in the early twenty-first century and to find a creative path toward it. Most important, we need to be ready to pay the price of civilization through multiple acts of good citizenship … and remembering that compassion is the glue that holds society together."
Some of our biggest problems are not at the level of the state but at the personal level: bigotry and racism, poverty and incarceration, trauma and vengeance. Beginning with pluralism at the individual level and expanding that into national and foreign policies requires empathy. It may be risky and it will certainly take conscious effort, but interrupting the empathy-free zone around reporting on Islam and Muslims is essential to maintaining American civilization — just as having compassion toward Irish, Jews, Asians and black Americans was and continues to be.