This statement by a gifted, world-class author got me thinking. After all, not everyone gets the chance to let their fruits flourish, let alone show them. Just think of the engineer or doctor who flees with her family from war and violence and ends up in a kitchen as a dishwasher – poorly paid or with black money.
In these times of political (in)correctness, however, this subject is perilous. If you act impetuously, you’ll be met by a shower of sludge, from all sides. Even if you act too cautiously, by the way. So, I’ll have to be very careful with what I say… On the other hand: in my first and second years of university, I had a professor of Medieval History who drilled into us: “Young people, have the courage of your conviction!”. Many wars would not have happened or would at least have turned out completely different if more people had stood up to what they experienced as grinding injustice.
In the captivating book ‘A time for empathy’, Frans de Waal (Dutch-American psychologist, ethologist, and author of ‘Chimpanzee Politics’) sheds light on his research into the roots of empathy as well as how and when this is practiced by humans and some other animal species and… when not.
A little while ago, Flemish philosopher Ignaas Devisch wrote “The Excess of Empathy”, which caused him to be razed by numerous people – who probably hadn’t read the book. Devisch achieved through pure reasoning, however, the same decision as de Waal: there is a limit to our empathy, whether we like it or not.
This insight brings me back to Paulo Coelho’s witticism: yes, as self-proclaimed intelligent beings, we want to judge people fairly. And no, we don’t actually want to condemn them because they are black or white, female or male, ill or bursting with health. We truly do want to judge other people ‘fairly’ and we do that almost intuitively based on, for example, what someone contributes to our society. In other words, the fruits. This explains statements such as: “yes, but you are a good one!” when a racist is called out on his opinion by a working or otherwise contributing person of colour or of a different faith.
Humans and higher animals do not like profiteers, not even within their own group, and are relatively happy to help those in need. The latter, however, on the condition that ‘they’ are not too far away from us and indeed contribute according to their capabilities.
A situation in which a group of people on the one hand claim the empathy and the fruits – which are the result of a certain system of habits, beliefs, laws, norms and values, study, work, etc – but on the other hand, according to the feeling of (too) many ‘indigenous people’, have contributed little to achieve those fruits, leads to a feeling of injustice among the latter. The further the norms and values of these immigrants deviate from those of these natives, the less their empathy is activated. On an individual level, empathy is more or less self-evident to most of us, but on a strategic or organisational level it clashes with our instincts of what a fair distribution entails.
In our super-complex world, our politicians better take into account the nature of our beast. Certainly empathetic but not too much and only under certain conditions. The latest scientific insights are literally vital to create fair laws at different levels. Insufficient insight into what the surplus on one level means in terms of costs for another leads irrevocably to misunderstanding or discomfort and, for some, the feeling of being treated unjustly. Hence, feel free to judge people on their fruits if they also receive the opportunity to develop and share them.