The Problem with EmpathyBy: hawkgrrrl
I have been undergoing some interesting cultural training as part of a work assignment. Part of this training explores the continuum of inculcation that people undergo when they experience a new culture. I found some very interesting parallels with how members of the church view those from other faiths or the process by which people become disaffected. Like an iceberg, culture consists of two aspects (above the surface, below the surface):
- Explicit (above the surface, what is visible). Observable characteristics, traits or behaviors that are uniquely a part of that culture. LDS external cultural traits might include: clean cut, conservatively dressed, uniform appearance, willing to help, lots of kids compared to averages, insular.
- Implicit (below the surface). The underlying beliefs, assumptions, and values that drive those behaviors and characteristics. LDS implicit values might include: family-centric, provident living and frugality, obedience, conformity, respect for authority / compliance, consecration / donating to the group and God, sacrifice, loyalty.
Usually we only notice the outward cultural traits without looking below the surface to see what values and assumptions are driving those traits or behaviors. Becoming more culturally aware causes people to re-examine their own values as they learn to see merit in alternative viewpoints. Sometimes those values and assumptions are reinforced, sometimes they are discarded as new values and assumptions are embraced.
I find that friends who spend a lot of time with disaffected church members often experience their own distancing from the church. I used to think of this as Father Damien syndrome. Father Damien was a priest who devoted his life to working with the leper colony on Molokai. Eventually, he too contracted leprosy and died there. In his words: “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.” If you go to Molokai, you can visit his chapel and also see his statue. What is interesting is that, contrary to belief at that time, leprosy is not a communicable disease. Father Damien caught leprosy from the same factors that resulted in others getting the disease, not from its sufferers directly. The idea of working with others only to be subject to the same conditions that resulted in their disaffection is worth exploring. (Lest I be accused of calling those who are disaffected lepers, I am not saying this at all. The analogy is about the process of identification and immersion in a new culture, being exposed to the ideas and environment of that culture for a prolonged period).
There are six levels of immersion in another culture:
- Denial. These would be individuals who deny the existence of other cultures. LDS equivalent: While total denial is not likely, this would be individuals who disbelieve that anyone actually espouses other beliefs in good faith. For example, someone who says that anyone who has changed their religious beliefs still knows it’s true but denies it. Empathy level: none, and low to no sympathy as well.
- Defense. These individuals are aware of other cultures and perspectives, but only view them in defense of their own way; what is different is viewed as inferior, while the familiar is always seen as superior. LDS equivalent: This is actually somewhat common among members, especially because we are a proselyting religion: there is a desire to justify one’s own views while dismissing dissenting views. If one is operating at this level, this is done with very little effort to understand the other viewpoint more than superficially and usually with a desire to refute it. Interest in others only serves as a way to see them as inferior. Empathy level: there is sympathy for those whose different views are seen as limiting and inferior. The sympathy leads the person to want to enlighten others and point out the error of their ways.
- Minimization. These individuals have realized that there are enough similarities to be able to find common ground and navigate the culture. LDS equivalent: These individuals downplay the differences with others, seeking to emphasize common ground and mutual understanding. Empathy level: high sympathy and a desire to understand, but not yet actually viewing things from the other perspective. Perhaps a “dry” Mormon (a non-LDS scholar who is knowledgeable and sympathetic to Mormons) would fit into this category.
- Acceptance. Focus shifts from minimizing differences to acknowledging the differences and beginning to understand that the differences exist for valid reasons. LDS equivalent: At this stage, one begins to see things from another viewpoint, and to find validity in that viewpoint. Empathy level: beginning stages of empathy.
- Adaptation. By this stage, the person begins to shift his/her own views to fit the new culture in many significant ways. It becomes possible and even customary (through practice) to see things through this new perspective. LDS equivalent: Essentially the person can navigate another belief system at this stage, nearly as an insider. Among the disaffected, this is when they begin to feel more like an outsider than an insider in the church; differences begin to feel more important than similarities. Empathy level: high levels of empathy for the new viewpoint or culture, and possibly the desire to integrate fully.
- Integration. At this stage, which most people never achieve, the person completely adopts the new culture and its perspectives, beliefs and assumptions. LDS equivalent: At this point, one has completely adopted and become part of another set of assumptions or beliefs, abandoning original views. Empathy level: for the new culture, very high – one may become fanatically devoted to the new “chosen” culture and forever critical of the original culture with its accompanying beliefs, assumptions, and behaviors. However, full integration is extremely rare. Even individuals who have defected from one country to another often still retain viewpoints from their original culture at the most basic level.
The first 3 levels are really only on the level of sympathy for others, but when one enters the 4th through 6th levels, empathy is achieved to varying degrees.
Children who move a lot can become what is called a Third Culture Kid (TCK) and eventually when they grow up, they can become Global Nomads. These are individuals who are so aware of other perspectives that they do not really fit into a single culture, but have established their own unique values through understanding a variety of perspectives. On the upside, they are empathetic, open-minded and mature. On the downside, they may be rootless and may not really have a single culture that fits them. They may feel like a perpetual outsider, but with unique insights into a variety of cultures. Global nomads are also often anti-authoritarian. Having perspective on the power systems that govern organizations makes them less in awe of those power systems.
As I consider what happens when friends have become very close with those who are disaffected, I think it is equivalent to this experience. The majority of members do not truly empathize (many do not even sympathize) with outsiders. As a result, someone who makes it to level 4 or 5 on this inculcation scale may find it difficult to affiliate as an insider in the church, especially if some of the values, beliefs and assumptions that are common to church members are questioned or discarded in the process.
BTW, these 6 levels can just as easily apply to someone from a non-LDS culture looking at the church; someone at a level 1 might believe all Mormons are disingenuous deceivers, while someone at a level 6 has joined the church and become a true convert and a cultural insider.
What do you think of this model to explain the process? Does this ring true? My own view is that most church members stay at level 2. A few go to level 3 and are viewed as very tolerant by contrast. Those who make it to level 4 or greater have a hard time going back because they have newfound distance and perspective on the cultural assumptions that those at earlier levels may lack (just as returning expats may be more open to criticism of their native country now that they have an international perspective).
Do you think the church is right to caution people to stay at level 2 or 3? Is it undesirable to become a “faith nomad” (the religious equivalent of a global nomad) through over-exposure to differing and opposing perspectives? Is empathy with other viewpoints a problem or the only path to enlightenment? Discuss.