The ability to feel what others are going through is apparently triggered in the brain by “mirror neurons” – something which neuroscience has lately uncovered. Jeremy Rifkin in his book and in this animated video talks about “empathic sociability” or the way in which we are able to identify with others who are going through a similar experience and the ability of media to create this sense of identification through images and pictures.
We apparently saw this in action following the disaster in Haiti as live reporting elicited a massive outpouring of support for the victims. Rifkin talks about the power of technology operating through the media to engender such a spontaneous response.
In the midst of a recession in the US in 1992, Gov Bill Clinton who as president famously uttered the words, “I feel your pain” spoke about “how the recession has affected me” to a lady during a taped town hall meeting which many believe was a turning point in his bid for the White House.
In Britain in August of 1997, PM Tony Blair’s ode to Diana, the “people’s princess” became a poignant moment in the wake of her fatal car crash in Paris. The message from this is that during periods of crisis, it is incumbent upon leaders to convey a sense of empathy in a way that collectivizes and shares the pain and suffering felt by the community in response to a tragedy.
In the Philippines, empathic sociability was demonstrated when the nation came together to mourn the passing of Tita Cory in August last year. The live media coverage of her wake and the tearful recounting of her family and close associates of events leading to her death brought about the massive outpouring of support on the streets of Manila as her funeral cortege made its way to her final resting place.
The crest of public sympathy for the Aquinos was what Noynoy rode all the way to Malacanan this year – similar to the way in which his mother swept Mr Marcos from office back in 1986 with the wave of outrage over her husband’s assassination. Ironically, a little over a year since her passing, public sympathy for the deaths of hostages comprised of Chinese citizens at his inaugural site covered live by the media has led to public outrage and sparked initial condemnation from China over his government’s handling of the incident.
Unfortunately, when it came to dealing with the raw emotions felt by those who witnessed this 12-hour tragedy, the response did not even come close to what was required. The statements, body language, and facial expressions of the president were roundly criticized and even condemned by both Filipino and Chinese nationals who were not even related to nor acquainted with the victims.
It seems that when it comes to empathic sociability, it can work both ways. We can feel both sympathy towards one party and hatred towards another. It can lead to grand acts of charity on the one hand and venomous spouting of spleen on the other.
Image credit: Tower of Power