about empathy

We are so subject to emotional appeal yet so able to be selective in our attribution of soul. How were the Nazis able to convince themselves it was all right to kill Jews? How were Americans so willing to “waste gooks” in the Vietnam war? It seems that emotions of one sort – patriotism – can ac as a valve, controlling the other emotions that allow us to identify, to project – to see our victim as (a reflection of) ourselves.

We are all animists to some degree. Some of us attribute “personalities” to our cars, others of us see our typewriters or our toys as “alive,” as possessors of “souls.” It is hard to burn some things in a fire because some piece of us is going up in flames. Clearly the “soul” we project into these objects is an image purely in our minds. Yet if that is so, why isn’t it equally so for the souls that we project into our friends and family?

We all have a storehouse of empathy that is variously hard or easy to tap into, depending on our moods and on the stimulus. Sometimes mere words or fleeting expressions hit the bull’s-eye and we soften. Other times we remain callous and icy, unmovable.

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douglas r. hofstadter, 1980 / text curated and digitalised picture by rinaldo rasa 2005 /

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Saturday February 2017


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