The Future of U.S., Indonesia and Asian Relations? A Foundation of Empathy

Along the interstate in Salt Lake City, United States sits a massive shopping mall replete with all the material comforts one can imagine. Its large electronic billboard flashes through the names of the stores in the mall, but between every few names a simple sign glares at the cars passing along the interstate. The sign has a black backdrop with white writing. The writing says simply, in all capitals, “SHOP EVERYDAY.” Drivers pass by isolated in their own vehicles with stereos turned up and cell phones charging next to them. Each person is just one atomized individual among hundreds of atomized individuals driving alone in their vehicular pods along the interstate.

At universities in the U.S., students get out of their cars and plug in their earbuds. They isolate and atomize themselves within their own worlds by drowning out the sounds of others. On a social media site one student says aptly, “It is like I am in a music video all about me.” Other students walk through the halls, heads down, texting on their cell phones. They skillfully weave in and out of the crowds of people, never looking up from their cell phones to say “Hello” or smile at each other. Cell phones and ear buds have become the universal sign for, “Don’t talk to me.” Texts, tweets and chats are the primary means of engaging with humanity, and these methods allow for individuals to dismiss, disregard and distance ourselves from the immediate bodily experiences of others.

Empathy is in danger in the U.S. Journalists report that individuals are becoming more and more isolated within personal spaces and individual wants. People see themselves as first and foremost individuals separated by their own wants competing among a mass of other individuals whose wants conflict with theirs. It is feared that empathy is becoming lost to isolated and atomized aspiration for individual gain. Empathy is suffocated in “no-touch personal bubbles” where material, cognitive and emotional barriers separate people.

People separate themselves within their own thoughts and feelings via the use of material methods. A recent study from the University of Michigan found that empathy in U.S. college students has decreased by more than 30 percent when compared to students 15 years ago. The researchers suggest that the decrease in empathy is due to the increase in isolating and atomizing technology, consumerism and competition.

A growing lack of empathy in turn fosters objectifying violence. The lack of empathy epidemic is evident in the sheer amount of psychological and physical violence that occurs routinely in the U.S. Students who are bullied in class and online are committing suicide or are responding with ever more increasing violence by bringing weapons to school. Nationwide school shootings have occurred in all levels of schooling, from elementary school to college. U.S. citizens face the threat of violence on the roads, at shopping malls, at work and in their homes.

Objectifying violence is a threat not just from other citizens, but from the government. Although incidents of excessive force by the police and prison guards have occurred throughout U.S. history, recently reports come out almost daily of citizens’ fatal encounters with the police. The lack of empathy demonstrated in the U.S. is carried over into the U.S.’s international relations. Human rights abuses at, among other places, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay reflect a lack of empathy within many ranks of the U.S. military as well as within several federal government agencies.

The lack of empathy epidemic is a social pathogen, and it is spread through learned behaviors. To reduce another person to an object to be touched violently and to ignore the physical or psychological pain of violent objectification is to completely disregard the person as a human being with their own thoughts and feelings. It is to disregard the person and their well-being as insignificant to oneself and one’s own thoughts and feelings. Violent objectification is perpetuated when one is taught to either not see other human beings as equal to oneself or to not see human beings as human beings.

War time and genocide propaganda are designed to teach individuals that the other is a threatening, non-human or less than human force that must be subdued or eradicated with violence. Political and economic ideologies that present and promote as an exemplar of human achievement the individual, self-interested, wealth-maximizer teach individuals others’ pain is at best a distant moral consideration. Ruthless competition for individual self gain at the expense of others teaches individuals that their gain is of primary moral importance.

All of this talk about empathy may seem irrelevant to international politics. However, western ethical and political theories draw upon human psychology. These theories begin from a conception of how humans work, and then proceed to how humans ought to act and how human political systems ought to be organized given how humans work. Traditionally, these theories have advocated humans as essentially and primarily individuals.

However, within these theories one can find elements of empathy. These theories entail concepts of collectivity and interconnection between individuals. While these theories do not explicitly mention empathy, they do hold such concepts as duty, respect, and autonomy as essential to a well-ordered society. Empathy supports all of these concepts because it fosters a reciprocal recognition of the humanity that is necessary to retain rights over these concepts.

Similarly, Confucianism seeks to foster a well-ordered society based on a foundation of human psychology and interconnectedness. Central to Confucianism is the concept of Ren, or “true goodness,” which encompasses “humanness” and “benevolence.” The character for Ren is constructed from the characters for a person (人) and two (二). Ren symbolizes someone who has cultivated virtuousness by being socially attentive. This concept means a person has to connect with others in order to be human.

Confucius asserted that man was by nature a social being, and the natural order of the universe should be reflected in human relations. The Ren virtue is linked with human connectedness. To be truly good is to follow the imperative that we should act toward others only how we would like to be treated. It is to extend ourselves beyond ourselves, our feelings, and our isolated being in order to take the perspective of the other person. Ren is empathy.

We find humans interconnected through empathy in western theories, Confucianism and Indonesia’s Muslim culture. Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country with approximately 88 percent of the population identifying themselves as Muslim. Indonesia is also the third-largest democratic country after India and the U.S. The Javanese Muslim term gotong-royong encapsulates nicely the Indonesia concept of empathy. Gotong-royong means “mutual assistance.” It is a common concept shared by the different ethnicities within Indonesia that everyone must work together for the common good. Empathy connects everyone for the common good.

The concept of gotong-royong was exemplified after the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia. When the tsunami struck the city of Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam, people from around the world worked together to help to locate and evacuate the victims. The U.S. contributed services to the effort. The USS Abraham Lincoln was in port in Hong Kong when it was ordered to the coast of Sumatra to provide help. The effort also included a total of forty-eight Navy and Marine Corps helicopters. The US Navy also contributed a thousand-bed hospital ship, the USNS Mercy, to the rescue operations.

Stories from the tsunami rescue efforts are hopeful indicators of how we can build relationships based on the foundations of empathy. One story is of a young Aceh boy named Ikbal. He had lost his whole family in the tsunami and had developed tsunami lung, a severe pneumonia caused by inhaling tsunami seawater and mud. He floated at sea for two days before being rescued by personnel on the USNS Mercy. He was reunited with his uncle at a hospital camp and after months of constant care by U.S. Navy nurses, project HOPE physicians and support staff, he made a full recovery.

Different individuals came together, from different backgrounds, to provide compassionate aid through empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and feel another person’s emotional and physical states. In order for us to empathize, we must be able to recognize that we are individuals with subjective experiences. We must recognize that we are individuals who experience the world and our experiences of the world make our lives either better or worse.

However, we must also be able to analogously transfer our subjective experiences onto other people. We must recognize that other people are similar to us in relevant ways and just as our lives are made better or worse by our worldly experiences, so are theirs made better or worse by their experiences.

Finally, we must recognize that our subjective experiences and their subjective experiences are not isolated from each other. It is crucial that we deeply comprehend that our actions can make other peoples’ lives better or worse. We cannot become cognitively isolated and atomized within our own thoughts and emotions.

Empathy connects us with people who we perceive as being sufficiently like us in relevant ways. When we see another person’s joy as they embrace their friend in a hug or when they hold their mother or father’s hand, we are joyous with them. When we see another person’s excitement as they aspire and work toward the fulfillment of a dream, we are excited with them. When we see another person’s frustration or sadness as they grieve for the loss of a loved one or the loss of the dream they have worked toward, we are frustrated and sad with them. We not only see them as a physical being displaying physical acts, we feel what they are feeling.

We feel as they do, as if we are experiencing their joy, excitement, frustration and sadness because in that moment we are in a very real way connected to them. In that moment, we are them.

We are connected to them as human beings who share a world filled with the same experiences of love, joy, sadness, pain, frustration, excitement and more. Empathy recognizes that complex emotions are shared universally by all human beings. Empathy is a sharing of lived experiences, across any distance, by simply seeing another person as similar to oneself in relevant ways. Different histories, languages, cultures, religions and economic and political ideologies, while individually important, are secondary to the essential humanness of lived experiences shared through empathy.

The connection empathy provides builds respect between individuals despite differences. If we see and feel as another does, then we gain a deeper perspective into their lives. Different histories, languages, cultures, religions and economic and political ideologies all shape our perspectives on the world and our place within the world. While individuals retain some room to shape themselves, no one’s worldly experiences are free from these influences. Individual self-creation always takes place within a contributing social context.

However, just as our identity is wrapped up in these conceptions, so is other peoples’. We begin to be able to understand the world through other peoples’ perspectives when we begin to see the world through those differences. Empathy allows us to step into and walk around in those differences. Empathy not only provides an emotional connection, but it also provides a cognitive connection to understanding the differences that shape other peoples’ perspectives.

Once we cognitively grasp what it is like to walk around for while in those differences, we cannot help but gain a deeper respect for other peoples’ perspectives. We will gain a deeper respect for other peoples’ perspectives because once we understand how their perspectives have been shaped by their bodily experiences, we can then feel what they feel about those experiences. We will understand their pain, sadness, anger, frustration, and joy.

Perhaps even more concretely, we can imagine ourselves interconnected empathetically through sight and touch. Psychologists and neuroscientists have found that empathy connects sight and touch when sight and touch are present to an individual. When we see someone in pain, as long as we perceive of that person as like us in relevant ways, we have a neuro-psychological reaction. When we perceive of others as being like us and we see them being touched either painfully or pleasantly, our brains react as if we are being touched either painfully or pleasantly.

Our individual minds and bodies are interconnected through sight and touch with the rest of humanity. We are interconnected through recognizing that when we see someone like us touched either painfully or pleasantly, that the painful or pleasant sensation they feel is just like the sensation we would feel. The empathetic response of feeling another’s painful or pleasant sensations is a precursor to a deeper empathetic response of attaching emotional context to such bodily stimuli.

In other words, empathetically feeling another’s bodily sensations leads to empathetically feeling another’s emotions associated with those sensations. It is within these two psycho-social realms of empathy that violent objectification fails to cognitively exist.

Psychologists, sociologists and historians have long noted how images play a role in the process of dehumanizing a group of people within societies, during war, or prior to and during genocides. The process of dehumanization fosters and justifies violent objectification of those portrayed as others. Historically in the U.S., images and films of Latinos, Blacks and Muslims have portrayed individuals socially classified within these groups as less than human by portraying them as morally inferior criminals or non-human animals.

War time propaganda is especially designed to rally national support against the enemy by portraying the enemy as inferior and less than human. War time propaganda images and films portray enemies as intellectually inept, ridiculously buffoonish, murderously conniving, or morally evil. In the U.S. such imagery has become increasingly objectifying, dehumanizing and subversive, subsuming itself in news media and Hollywood blockbusters. Worldwide, genocidal metaphors that play on the image often portray the dehumanized others as a disease that needs to be cured through eradication.

However, if images have the power to dehumanize, and in turn foster and justify violent objectification, then could images not also do the reverse and foster humanizing empathy?

To be sure, once a society is saturated with dehumanizing images to the point that the dehumanization of the people in those images is naturalized within the psyche of the viewers, the lessons those images teach are going to be difficult to be reversed. In fact, if individuals have taken the dehumanization of people deemed to be others as unquestionably natural, then those lessons may never be able to be reversed. However, perhaps images of humans from different backgrounds that demonstrate their humanity could foster empathy if those images are introduced early to individuals or are reinforced in many areas of society.

Moreover, given the connection between sight and touch in connecting individuals through empathy, perhaps images of humans from different backgrounds engaged in social and affectionate touch could foster humanization. For example, consider the dehumanizing images you may have been exposed to. Perhaps those images showed the othered individuals as violent and subversive or animalistic.

Now, imagine if the individuals portrayed in those images were instead hugging and playing with their children, or kissing their mothers or fathers on the cheeks, or shaking hands with their friends after playing a game. Imagine if those images portrayed the bodily and emotional experiences of their everyday lives within their own backgrounds, and yet demonstrated how any differences were secondary to the essential humanness shared by us all.

Imagine if images portrayed us all as people who can feel not just bodily sensations, but bodily sensations that are attached to complex emotions. Images that demonstrate humanity through shared bodily and complex emotional contexts could foster sustainable empathy. Sustainable empathy could foster sustainable peace and justice.

What is the future of relations between the United States, Indonesia and Asia? The economic, political, and cultural possibilities are vast. However, whatever possibilities we together choose to pursue, we must begin from a foundation of empathy instead of a foundation of materialistic consumerism. In the U.S. it is feared that materialistic consumerism has become detrimental for empathy. Indonesia has a steadily growing economy, the largest in Southeast Asia. A way must be found to foster empathy in a world of materialistic consumerism.

The relationship between the U.S., Indonesia and the rest of Asia presents a unique opportunity for our time. We live in a time of extreme violence perpetuated by cultural, religious, political and economic differences. Empathy among individuals in the West is declining and fostering violent objectification.

We are facing a turning point. We can either continue to perpetuate social systems that foster violent objectification, or we can tap into the better parts of our natures and start fostering more empathy. The U.S. and Indonesia are uniquely situated to usher in a new era of sustainable peace and justice because of their unique differences and similarities. The U.S. and Indonesia can together work together toward a common goal of sustainable peace and justice by building a relationship based first and foremost on empathy.

Empathy is a shared moral value across our cultures. Images have the potential to shape the way we view our world and our fellow humans within our shared world. Images that portray us as sharing in bodily and complex emotional contexts humanize us. When we are able to see each other fundamentally and essentially as humans, regardless of our different cultural, social, religious, political or economic backgrounds, we are able to empathize with each other. Empathy pops “no-touch personal bubbles” and connects individuals cognitively and emotionally with other people. Empathy, in turn, is necessarily humanizing instead of dehumanizing and objectifying. Empathy, thus, fosters understanding and respect which at the same time prevents violent objectification.

Sustainable peace and justice for everyone across the world requires nothing less.

Betty Stoneman
Utah Valley University
United States of America

Adryani Gloriana Landum
Satya Wacana Christian University
Indonesia

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