A friend has loaned me a copy of Jeremy Rifkin's The Empathic Civilization. I haven't got very far into it yet, but the premise is that as creatures we care for one another, that the apparent brutality of the world is aberrant to some degree, and exaggerated to a large extent. If you measured the rate of empathic interactions to that of aggressive and destructive ones, the indicator would overwhelmingly point in the direction of a world that is kinder and more gentle then we have imagined.
I am opening my mind to Mr. Rifkin's thesis. I want to believe what he's saying, and insofar as it's within my realm of influence that's the kind of world I strive for. Nor is that striving in vain. I believe that transformation occurs one mind at a time, gathering momentum and speed as more minds are aligned in a certain ideal. The world can be a more empathic place, and believers in an empathic world have a responsibility to live that belief.
But has the world been an overwhelmingly empathic place until now? I have not been convinced so far.
Mr. Rifkin seems to be making a case that children are born predisposed to empathy, and that only if their empathic natures are not nurtured do they become aggressive and violent. I'm trying very hard to restrain my skepticism. Very hard. However, I think it more likely that some children are born with empathic natures, others not, and some are born with aggressive tendencies. Until now aggressive personalities have muscled their ways to the top because they have inhabited a world where aggression was needed and rewarded.
I say 'until now' because I do believe the indicator is swinging more to empathy than aggression as the style of interaction that will be needed and rewarded into the future. And here Mr. Rifkin is making an argument that resonates with me. If I am interpreting correctly, he is saying that the complex, multi-layered world we live in requires empathy if it is to be sustained, and the empathy that is required goes beyond just the corporate working group. If we are going to stay on the intensely energy demanding track our civilization is on, then we have to learn how to empathize on a colossal scale or we will destroy our planet and ourselves with it.
So are we learning? I will cite one modern phenomenon that suggest we are: the rise of feminism. Social, cultural and historical structures don't change because someone decides one day that it would be nice and the world would be better if it were organized differently. Change happens because one paradigm has become outmoded and another necessary. Feminism isn't only about women improving their lot and increasing their power; it's about a world needing the type of empathic skills that women have in greater proportion then men. That doesn't detract in any way from the women who seized the opportunity and advanced their cause; it does explain the historical circumstance that made their achievement not only possible, but necessary.
In any case, Mr. Rifkin's book is more than 600 pages long. If it can provoke this much brain-straining, and get me into this much hot water (from one quarter or another) when I'm barely one-tenth the way through it, then I think I'm in for an exhausting read!