The power of empathy

Illustration: Simon Prades

Almost every day we come across positive news about Bangladesh's economic progress, and the individual achievements of creative, entrepreneurial, and innovative Bangladeshis. However, the good news is undermined by the cracks that are emerging in our social structure. There is a perceptible loss of social capital and trust amongst citizens. If someone were to ask me "what is the central challenge facing our society?" my answer would be: a decline in compassion and empathy for our fellow human beings.

My concern has been intensified by two recent incidents in Dhaka city. The first was the shocking news of an elderly man being assaulted by his neighbours for protesting against loud music on the rooftop of their apartment building. The gentleman suffered a heart attack and died. We may ignore the unwritten rule restricting noise pollution. But it is utterly appalling and reprehensible that we live in a society where a human life is worth less than the personal pleasure derived from music and entertainment.

The second incident occurred more than a month ago. An 85-year-old widow was assaulted and forcibly evicted from her apartment where she had resided for four decades. Despite the fact that there was a court case pending on the ownership, a real estate development company along with the property owners reportedly locked up the occupant and her domestic help while they vandalised her apartment. She was then thrown out into the street.

Sadly, the two episodes have reinforced my belief that as we are climbing up the economic ladder, we are becoming less sensitive about the power of human relationship. Each day there are reports about mugging, wife beating, child molestation and rape. While these actions are inexcusable, we could assign part of the blame to economic desperation, psychological and emotional disorders, and lax law enforcement. But the two recent incidents I described above display an utter lack of sensitivity for the "other." They are impelled by the destructive energy of a society that is finding it hard to cope with its transition to a middle-income country and the changing ethical norms. Apart from the moral aspects of the issue, we need to recognise that this kind of social degeneration results in rising crime levels, political polarisation, and religious extremism—problems that we are already facing as a country.

It is understandable that in today's competitive environment, people want to get ahead in their professions by running on the fast track of their career path. However, material success is not the only indicator of a well-rounded, good life. It's also necessary to be neighbourly, civic-minded, charitable, have respect for the elderly, and to avoid physically aggressive behaviour in public. After all, we want to live in an environment that is harmonious and peaceful. And none of us want our children to inherit a socially polarised, unstable and uncaring world.

Was everything perfect in the past? Of course not. There were racial and gender discrimination, economic exploitation, and social crimes. But since we are making progress in so many directions, why not focus on improving human relationships that will ultimately strengthen the moral fabric of our society? Showing empathy and compassion toward our fellow human beings does not require a social revolution. Turning down the volume of the music that is disturbing an elderly, sick man is not a great sacrifice; it only requires that we step into someone else's shoes and make a small adjustment.

One may ask, how did we, as a community, become so insensitive and selfish? It could be because people with influence and power, for a variety of reasons, have abandoned their roles as advocates for respectability, civility, and moral values. As a consequence, the counterculture has made great headway—a culture where wealth and muscle power have taken priority over ethical considerations. We accept this moral decline as the inevitable cost of economic progress. With time we have also begun to conflate wealth with self-worth, ignoring the fact that full humanity includes many more dimensions. There is an insidious danger in this kind of faulty thinking—both the wealthy and the disadvantaged come to believe that only a materially successful person deserves honour, reward, and privilege. The truth is that in a balanced social order, every individual is entitled to courtesy, respect, kindness, safety, protection, opportunity, and forgiveness.

We are becoming more technologically savvy and materially sophisticated. But there has not been a commensurate upward movement in the emotional and moral curve. We need to seriously reflect on the kinds of power other than wealth and status—the moral power of truth and love—what Gandhi called Satyagraha (truth force). The underlying principle defining this kind of power is simple: Let us try to use the non-violent force of love to bring about social change. And let's treat each individual as if they are part of full humanity. The rest will fall into place!

Milia Ali is a Rabindra Sangeet exponent and a former employee of the World Bank.

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