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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

When Empathy is Not Enough

It's been a hectic few days.

I took a detour to Berlin to visit a friend, and then found myself repaying a favour of a kind to a newly made friend by visiting Greece during the recent riots there, to show my support.

Now, after a quick stop in Istanbul, it will be on to Kazakhstan to meet someone who has invited me over to advise on competition law, and how to expand their business into Europe.

With my friends in Istanbul we sit at our favourite meeting place, and talk of jet lag, and private plane hopping, and of how to acclimatize our body clocks to the different time zones. Some suggest we should "fast" on the plane, and eat immediately after landing to reset our internal rhythms so we feel less sluggish for the day ahead.

First world problems. We sit and gripe about business, about travel, about this or that, in our relatively peaceful lives, filled with abundance.

As we talk, sipping our expensive Japanese teas and enjoying an Indian summer in Istanbul, I can't help but zone out. I look southwards and try and imagine what the Syrian refugees on the Turkish border are drinking, or thinking, or feeling. What are they talking about?

Or even further still, into Syria; what were those people thinking, and feeling?

What about the hostage crisis in Nairobi? The families mourning their dead. Children. So young. A husband. A Harvard graduate, a pregnant wife. A child unborn. A future denied. Good people lost.

Just one of many violent incidents these recent chapters of our human history have been blighted with.

And violence isn't relegated to the developing world, where a culture of fanaticism and struggle is often combined with bloodshed.

In developed countries, we continue to live in a culture of violence, and - thanks to our adaptable nature - we have become physical expressions of it. No where is this more clearly seen than online, where the virtual has become all too real.

Why Do We Act So Aggressively?

Blogs and tweets by global mega stars are now attracting millions of online readers and followers. But, as trolling abuse becomes a major worldwide cause for concern, the overenthusiastic loyalty of some devotees is creating issues for the likes of Lady Gaga and boy band One Direction.

Lady Gaga has even found it necessary to ask her fans to stop sending online threats to her critics. She says she will not condone "hateful or abusive language" directed towards others, warning that "this is not a healthy way to handle your emotions".

On the same fault lines, when Katy Perry's recent "Roar" seemed to echo Sara Bareilles' track, it was again another channel for fans to overreact, causing the artist they were defending to feel upset with them. In response to how the fans reacted Bareilles said later, "To be totally honest, I was sort of disappointed in how aggressive fans were being about it". Interesting that both songs are meant to be about positive empowerment.

I don't belong to any social network. I don't tweet, nor am I interested in celebrity blogs (or that sort of tween music). I neither read nor follow these social stars, but the stories I read about these issues show the growing trend for abusive trolling - and that does catch my attention.

Although I understand and appreciate how social networking has many benefits, it makes me feel relieved I have steered clear of it. Without the proper education into how to use (and not abuse) these technologies, it has the potential for great harm in our pliable hands.

Like computer games, it gives us a heightened sense of reality, as though we believe we can do whatever we like because doing it online somehow isn't real, so it doesn't matter. We can lie about a person we have never met, and who lives thousands of miles away from us, or we can post throwaway comments on a Facebook group because we feel it doesn't matter. It isn't real.

The Dissociation with Reality

Writer AL Kennedy has questioned whether our world has become a place where a plausible or entertaining lie is more welcome than the truth - and the virtual world does indeed help foster that to some extent.

The phenomenon of fake friends and relationships on social sites such as Facebook, recently termed as catfishing, is one manifestation. It seems to prove the cynics that say people generally don't really make friends online, they show off the friends they've got - but catfishing has deeper connotations.

I have always advocated that we be wary of online relationships, and have been misunderstood by many women (especially from a fringe of Tarkan's fanbase) when I have tried as politely as possible to turn down their more amorous intentions, or to explain I neither share their idolatry obsessions, nor am in competition for it.

I shall assume due to miscommunication (because I'm not qualified to assess their mental or emotional well-being), I have upset married women, offended single ones, made bitter enemies of some, simply because I refuse to entertain any sort of emotional relationship (and so they opt for a one-sided one).

However, a few pictures, a few emails, or even my blog posts will not tell a person what they genuinely need to know about me, which is of any importance. The reason is because it would necessitate me having to tell them in words and pictures, when the reality is we need to learn about others by being in their presence, to listen to their actions speak of the things they can't tell us with words alone.

We need to learn for ourselves, not be told. Nothing I have ever written is wisdom for others, they are items I personally carry in my life. My words can only ever be a guidance to wisdom - your own. There is no cookie-cutter mould to follow to the truth, the path to the truth must first resonate with you, else it won't mean a damn thing. I am a firm believer that we need to go after the truth ourselves, because not only will the process help us grow, it is what will truly make us believe it. Don't just believe what people say without questioning it, or at least question why they are saying it.

In my mind, a Facebook relationship based just on a bed of comments would be a lie; it becomes a truth when the individuals meet. I have always preferred the physical face-to-face kind of interaction when making new friends. When I have turned down people in the past, I tried to explain I didn't agree with such virtual long distance relationships, and didn't want to be the cause of prolonged, unnecessary heartache.

I haven't written about these problems from a personal view for a long time, as I was under the misguided impression that a man had to be a gentleman about certain issues when dealing with women, and save their feelings. But if the same respect isn't reciprocated, then as long my response isn't disrespectful, I think I have a right to tell it like it is.

Not because a few irritant actions actually even bothered me enough to spend three seconds of mental power on them, but because it may carry lessons for us all in our future interactions with people.

The Dark Side of Sociability

The best vehicle for men and women to communicate with each other is honesty, and effective communication needs trust. Trust can only be built through time. It's common sense, but one that needs to be taught along with the technology that allows us to hook up at the click of a button.

And though there are networking sites that generate the social glue of trust between strangers, these need to be in the right environment.

The fact of it is, social networking - especially closer to home - has a more sinister aspect to it, with claims that it gives young people a lackadaisical attitude towards sex, and sexual partners.

What exactly does it do to us when we take our sex lives - which major sections of society tell us we need to keep behind closed doors - online? Do it and then delete it seems to have become the default for many.

Having fun in this ephemera, and the freedom to do that, I am all for. But sex takes mature responsibility; it requires an adult respect for our bodies. There has already been some investigation into how the sex lives of young people, who rely on social networking sites, the latest mobile technology and webcams, is changing. Some believe it is harming the way we view human relationships.

I assume this is why some countries are looking to block these networks, and their respective apps, as protective measures, but a blanket ban only serves as a crackdown on the freedom of speech and information. What needs to be taught is responsibility, respect and recognition that what we do online has far reaching consequences. For instance, we can no longer "slag off" people online and hope to get away with it.

I work with many women in a professional capacity and show great respect for their position and character. I have many women friends, too, and it is interesting that the only problems I have ever encountered with certain women is online. In my online capacity, all I have tried to do is help people come closer to understanding with my translations, and yet it has had some unwelcome attention.

It's probable that, because I wasn't born with a smartphone in my hands, or a Facebook profile in place of a birth certificate, I'm not attune to this online way of making friends.

I mean real friends, not fake ones, because to me, the worse examples of social networking suggest that we're creating individuals who don't know how to reach out to each other. Naturally with my social experiences online I have connected with, helped and been honoured to meet some amazing people, but to me a friend is something separate than a network entity which can be created at the click of a button. More so when there is the potential for that friendship to deepen.

Moreover, while connecting internationally is great for promoting unity, when have "holiday romances" ever lasted? Maybe I couldn't be bothered to communicate it properly. Maybe I was too much of a gentleman to say, look you're too fat, thin, etc, not my type (not that I have a type). Or maybe I haven't attuned myself to it, because there is going to come a time when people are going to realise we need to look for love firstly in ourselves, and then by looking people in the eye. Because it's harder to lie that way than by posting a few delusions on Facebook.

I have tried to be a gentleman about it in the past when problems have arisen, but the few women who took it personally decided to throw their dignity out the window - and I again assume because it was a virtual one.

When someone is not looking you in the eye, is miles away, and not very real to you (except in your own head) then you will act differently than you would in your daily life. So, I have dealt with this bitterness, resulting from the basic kindness I tried to show, by not responding in kind.

But I have often wondered, had I led them on and "used" them emotionally or physically instead, whether I would now be faced with less bitterness than I have been shown.

Again, it is the culture we live in, and I accept that - but we denigrate ourselves when we denigrate each other. I have stuck steadfast to these principles, because it takes away any reason to lie or boast or brag. I am not here to catch your attention or entertain you. Or to get into your pants. In short, I have no reason to lie.

To me it's inconceivable why people sometimes prefer lies to the truth - but truth can evaporate. Liars do not fear the truth if there are enough liars to collaborate. Even "good people" that remain silent over a lie are in effect collaborating to it. Silence is taken as a signal of guilt, and then everyone is guilty.

And if I am a guilty man, my crime is in daring to believe that the truth will out, and that no one lie can live forever.

I believe it still. Much as you try to bury it, the truth will outlast us, because one day you will die, and your lies will become the dust we are all destined to become.

It's the truth that will remain.

Violence is a Virtual Blip

On our individual paths towards that truth, today we are still struggling with the lies told to us throughout history - but in evolutionary terms, we are a blip.

For the truth I talk about are not the truths we claim to know, and all the ways in which we interpret what we're told. The truth I talk about will pass over this time without so much as a jolt. It is simply a shame that we can't enjoy the short time we have to pursue a culture of happiness, and make that our reality, rather than the lockdown of violence we find ourselves in now.

It is a violence we perpetuate by the things we do and see - and play.

The ultra violent game Grand Theft Auto is being touted as one of Britain's finest cultural exports, up there with Shakespeare, and it has been a game-changer in its field, there's no doubt about that. Playing first person shooter games online has been proven to improve eyesight and spacial awareness, too, but it might also give you the mindset necessary to become a rouge sniper.

Its level of interactivity, where we must graphically torture others to succeed in the game, or are allowed to covertly beat a woman after having had sex with her for money (and in effect get away with it) means it needs to be played by minds not in their formative years.

Although long-term studies have failed to find links between violent video games and youth violence, other studies suggest people who regularly play action video games could be at increased risk of developing neurological and psychiatric disorders. Even if the violent game scenes are satire, you need a mind educated enough to understand it, because we are not watching it and being provoked to redemptive thought in a theatre, we are physically, with our own hands, playing the game.

Make no mistake, GTA is just a game, it's just that its effect on certain minds might not be.

It's like the Milgram experiment where students were told to electrocute a person in increasingly high dosages - and they obeyed. It revealed a major lesson: often it is not so much the kind of person we are, as the kind of situation in which we finds ourselves in that determines how we will act.

We need a change in our circumstances to break the mental pattern of violence. But when we play a game, and are told to torture someone to succeed, we will do so. In the real world, this would give us a deep moral conflict, but as ever the culture that nurtures us will have its say over any inherent humanity, because adaptability is a key to survival - life's ultimate goal.

Survival is something those struggling to do know all about. And so, as I drink my tea, I look out towards an imaginary horizon, to where I think the border with Syria might be, and try to imagine the lives in turmoil struggling to survive.

I feel a little ashamed that I sit at a quiet tea place in a bustling city with friends, with the luxury to wonder about the Western societies we live in. First world problems pale into insignificance when you are hungry, without proper shelter and have lost loved ones to senseless violence.

The Patterns of History

History is often repetitive, and I am suddenly reminded of the time I found myself sitting in Cyprus, having a cup of joe and watching a refugee sitting on a bench.

That was over six years ago when I took to the streets to live with them for a while. It was a drastic action, taken with the brashness of youth, but it was wanting to understand which took me to the streets. I had seen an individual, only a few paces away from me but worlds apart, and I had wanted to know how he felt. Because I had been horrified to realise that I couldn't imagine how he felt.

Now, suddenly, I have itchy feet again. I feel like I want to skip the business meeting and take a trip to southern Turkey.

A good friend seated opposite me seems to read my thoughts, and shakes his head sternly at me.

But I want to go, not to pick up a gun, but to talk. I don't expect to solve anything; I want to go for myself. To understand. To talk to both sides, and see what is dividing them. To talk to everyone and anyone willing to speak of these complicated, cultural and historical issues that have been so distilled into simple acts of violence.

A drastic action is the only way sometimes for us to understand another. Because when we are so drugged up in a culture of violence and virtual firewalls the difference between sympathy and empathy is an argument over semantics. How can we say we empathise, when we don't even have a strong notion of what understanding is?

Understanding is looking beyond our own opinions, and biases, and thinking differently. Until we can do that, mere empathy is not enough, because it isn't real. That's virtual empathy.

For real empathy, we need to have evolved to a state where it becomes second nature to feel for another human being. That needs a new enlightenment, or a long time spent with that person in the real-time world. I feel the loss of a Harvard graduate more than I might the loss of another, and that needs to change.

We need to get closer, because sometimes the distance doesn't make the heart grow fonder, it makes monsters out of us all.

Else the best we can do in the comfort of our Western homes is to try and understand without judging.

And if we are to mediate, then mediation means making contact, but it needs to be more social than the virtual kind. It's only through close physical contact, with talking (and more importantly listening) that we will ever be able to empathise with the plight of people so locked in violence around the world.

And while I want to understand why people in Syria are dying, I also want to believe that the dead are not lost to us. That the good people we lose speak to us as part of something greater than us, of a gestalt that says we are greater than the sum of our parts.

And if you and I are powerless now, I want to believe that if we listen, to what's speaking, it can give us the power to save ourselves.

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