Selective Empathy and the United Kingdom’s Balance Sheet
According to the findings of a recent OECD study, social capital, a complex social arrangement involving trust, consortia, and reciprocal benefits, is significantly undermined when various social groups can detect and target one another’s implicit associations with words and content. This is because these groups know that some members are more likely to share these implicit associations (for example, people who are smokers tend to associate smoking images with the word “smoker”). These groups can therefore tailor their social actions based on these associations.
Despite the fact that this practice may seem generally harmless in the short term, in the long term, as effectively targeted citizens (e.g., victims of crime) develop implicit associations with criminal organizations, news programming, and weather information that are aimed directly at them, civil society will increasingly be decimated. Such a phenomenon has been dubbed “selective empathy” by the researchers, which is this widespread knowledge of the existence of groups within civil society that anticipate and undermine one another’s institutional interests and functioning. In other words, after groups within civil society are identified and targeted, reciprocity is deliberately (if tactfully) undermined so that mutual interests are less likely to be observed and supported.
The consequences of such destructive practice can certainly be severely harmful to civil society. In countries like Canada and the UK, Canadians found that they had seen an erosion of social bonds and wealth stability. In Britain, it is common for groups within civil society to have come together to create movements, such as Fight for London. Such movements have then, quite often, allowed groups to disrupt national elections. In turn, it is often reported that these groups, unlike the coalitions themselves, are generally inclusive, democratic, and respectful of others’ political beliefs.
Unfortunately, as civil society is systematically weakened, organizations and individuals lose incentives to engage in cooperative ventures and trade relationships. This sets the stage for the dramatic removal of governmental infrastructure in favor of less rigid and decentralizing forms of social organization. What is often left behind is a fragmented social order and an ensuing vacuum, leading to greater personal financial risk and more often, law enforcement-related social service issues.
One of the most famous examples of selective empathy occurred in the 1950s, when European coalitions helped to topple the Soviet Union. Emotions and various forms of information about the break-up of Soviet communism were disseminated amongst elites who then proceeded to deviate from their previous associations with countries such as France, Great Britain, and Holland. Such outbreaks of selective empathy also occurred in post-WWII economic and political struggles, with Argentina and Chile forcibly going through price changes in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Apart from the fact that examples like selective empathy must not be tolerated, what needs to be done is to protect the longer-term interests of civil society by recognizing and immediately addressing the problem. By creating reciprocal and cooperative groups, selectively challenged citizens will be dissuaded from engaging in such behavior – something that may take several generations. Such a strategy may take longer, but no one should be shy about the long-term effects on civil society.