A major problem with empathy-driven kindness is the tendency of people to not only show kindness only to those deemed to be of their own kind, but what neuroscientists refer to as “the mother bear” phenomena; that is, a mother bear’s love for her cubs can drive her to the most horrific acts of violence against those she sees as a threat to them. Unfortunately, we are now seeing this “mother bear” type of empathy bias in the long-standing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians that recently erupted into a full-scale war after Hamas terrorists killed, injured and captured innocent Israeli men, women and children under the claim of its love for the Palestinian people and commitment to liberate them from decades of oppression. After that inhumane act of terrorism, the focus rightly shifted to the pain and suffering that attack caused Israelis, as we are now seeing many news stories of Israeli families that have been literally torn apart by such hatred and violence.
Unfortunately, some of those expressions of love and loss have quickly morphed to promises of revenge, including to destroy Hamas, Gaza and, by implication, the Palestinian people, who are trapped there amidst endless bombing and a major planned ground offensive that threatens them with nothing short of forced migration or genocide. In the midst of this tragic madness, people in the United States and other countries are now choosing sides of who to love and who to hate that is increasingly erupting into violence.
There can be no end to such “loving to hate” driven violence until all of us are able to find room in our hearts to express compassion for all those who are suffering in a way that we are able to both stop the oppression of Palestinians experience daily, as well as the horrible acts of terrorism Hamas has directed against innocent Israelis.
Unfortunately, one of the problems we face in trying to comprehend and address such a huge and socially complex phenomenon is that our understanding of what it means to be kind and compassionate is not up to the task. Indeed, under such a small, popular-psychology and anodyne definition of kindness as simply “random acts of kindness” one individual does for another, politicians in the United States and other countries have organized anti-democratic and authoritarian movements that pit empathy for one group of people against enmity against members of others that are vilified and targeted in way that furthers unkind, and inhumane oppression. This applies to things like class-based inequality and exploitation, racism, gender subjugation, LBGTQIA+ persecution, war, colonialism, imperialism, genocide and the destruction of the planet.
To stop such group-targeted hatred, we must restore kindness to its rightful place at the center of big and important intellectual and political debates as was the case during the Enlightenment; a conceptualization of kindness that both explains and promotes human caring beyond self and interpersonal kindness, to kindness expressed at the group, formal organizational, institutional, societal, intersocietal and universal levels of human actions. To that end, we may wish to consider as a large, robust and politically engaged re-conceptualization of kindness, the benevolent thoughts, feelings and actions of individuals, groups, institutions and societies that nurture the physical, psychological and social well-being of all sentient beings and protects and sustains the natural environment of which they are an inextricable part.
How do we do that? And how do we stop the vicious cycle of love-driven hatred in the Middle East by expanding our understanding of what kindness is, who should receive it
, and how? I don’t know. But I do know that a movement toward universal and compassionate kindness must begin with a commitment to go beyond expressing empathy for those deemed to be of our own kind. A good place to begin perhaps is for our religious and other leaders to lead us in reflection of the various versions of the Golden Rule adopted by most religions and spiritual traditions throughout the world: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
Noel A. Cazenave is Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut, the recipient of UConn’s 2020 Alumni Association Faculty Excellence in Research and Creativity-Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences Award, and the author of Kindness Wars: The History and Political Economy of Human Caring.