Empathy Sabbatical

I read this New Yorker article not because I care that much about Linux but because I became fascinated about the concept.

On Sunday, the benevolent dictator announced that he would be stepping down temporarily, to “get some assistance on how to understand people’s emotions and respond appropriately.” Torvalds, who is forty-eight and lives with his family outside Portland, Oregon, made clear that he wasn’t burned out. “I very much do want to continue to do this project that I’ve been working on for almost three decades,” he wrote in a post to the Linux-kernel mailing list. “I need to take a break to get help on how to behave differently and fix some issues in my tooling and workflow.”

Linus Torvalds is confident he can become a better person

To me, this isn’t a question about how we can change and become better people. I believe we can. I am extremely skeptical that empathy can be treated as a code-bash though. I kept thinking “is it possible to take an empathy sabbatical?” Can we simply will ourselves to feel empathy? Can humans, through time and attention re-factor our sense of empathy? I don’t think we can.

Empathy requires us to inhabit the emotions of another person. That can only be done through building our own life experiences as stand-ins for the emotions of a foreign experience. Then we project ourselves into the life of the other. It’s often an unconscious response managed by our mirror neurons.

These mirror neurons reflect back actions that we observe in others causing us to mimic that action in our own brains. When we observe someone in pain or when we are with someone happy, we experience that to a certain extent. These mirror neurons are the primary physiological basis of empathy. They create a neural Wi-Fi that connects us to the feelings of people around us.

I do not know or empathize with Linus Torvalds so my opinion is just based on what he projects into the world. By his own accounts he is a mean and inconsiderate person with near complete apathy for how other people feel. He has always been self aware though. With enough time and attention, I do believe a person can fake empathy. We pay to see good empathy fakes at the theaters. We vote for fake empathy in government. It’s a tried and true way to get support from passionate people.

Some of the most effective liars I’ve ever known were excellent fakes. They read emotions and reflect back the appropriate response. Heck, I do that sometimes because that is part of working with people we do not understand. This is not noble or good. It’s manipulative.

Since the 2016 election I have lost a lot of my empathy. Perhaps I’ve focused too much attention on my differences with people that cheer for racism or clap for sexism and violence against the dis-empowered. Whatever it is, I can no longer empathize with a large number of people in the world. Empathy can give us joy as easily as it can give us sorrow. I now find it difficult to mirror the joy in other people and this makes me sad. Empathy is one of the characteristics that make us special in the animal kingdom and I feel lesser for it’s frequent absence.

De Waal says animal empathy is underestimated: “There is increasing evidence, mostly in mammals but also in birds, that animals are sensitive to the emotions of others and react to distress in others by attempts to ameliorate their situation or rescue them. There are experiments showing the same, so these videos are to be taken seriously as illustrations of this tendency.”

If we can lose empathy through concentration, does that mean the opposite is true? Can we gain empathy simply by contemplating others? That seems difficult to believe for a 48 year old man.

Linus Torvalds:

“So in the end, my ‘I really don’t want to be too PC’ stance simply became untenable. Partly because you definitely can find some emails from me that were simply completely unacceptable, and I need to fix that going forward. But to a large degree also because I don’t want to be associated with a lot of the people who complain about excessive political correctness.

Perhaps we become what we continually pretend to be. Or perhaps a lie is as good as the truth if you can get someone to believe it.