THE rise of the internet and the recent exponential growth of social networks have got a lot of commentators excited about the impact that this process of “global wiring” could have over human empathy. The basic premise is quite simple: greater interconnectivity means greater opportunities to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes on a regular basis, hence expanding our capacity to recognize and understand others’ feelings (emotional empathy) and others’ worldviews (intellectual empathy). If empathy is a human aptitude fostered by proximity and ongoing exchange, then a globalized and interconnected humanity should be ideal for empathy’s development.
The argument that rising global interconnectivity should encourage empathy seems quite obvious and it is easy to get excited about its promising consequences in fields like ethics, politics and philosophy itself. Unfortunately, the rise of global interconnectivity not only promotes intellectual empathy, it also promotes its evil twin: intellectual fundamentalism. It turns out that greater chances to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes do not necessarily mean that we will expand our capacity for intellectual empathy: we might as well hate those shoes and the actual experience of having to constantly try them on can in fact fuel our hostility. In a world where otherness was reasonably isolated it was ease to be tolerant – as the annoyance of having to deal with others’ worldviews was in reality quite minimal. But in a globally wired world, coping with otherness becomes a central feature of our daily life, raising the stakes of our ability to tolerate. As such, what looked like a suitable environment for enhanced intellectual empathy is turning out to be fertile ground for fundamentalism to rise. How did this happen?
As I have argued elsewhere, the current tendency towards fundamentalism at the expense of empathy derives from the uncontested conviction that our worldview is the one that gets the world as it really is, while others' worldviews do not. This conviction, I have also explained, is a legacy of our political organization into a tolerant liberal state, where worldviews are considered private matter securing them a place to roam freely and uncontested. Toleration is great and has yielded spectacular results for humanity’s progress; but Toleration is an outward looking concept, not an inward looking one. You can be the world’s most tolerant person but if your starting point is that your worldview is the true one, a world where different worldviews grow increasingly visible and vocal becomes dangerously difficult to navigate. This takes me to the central point I want to emphasize in this post: as long as we refuse to tear down the epistemological wall that protects our own worldview we will find ourselves unable to unlock empathy and we will remain prays of rising fundamentalism. In an interconnected world we do not necessarily need to change what we believe in, but we certainly need to transform the way in which we believe whatever it is that we believe.
As I have claimed elsewhere, we are currently experiencing a great mismatch between ideologically rigid individuals and an increasingly fluid and mosaic world. This mismatch calls for a reevaluation of the status of our own beliefs. This is my philosophical “cri de guerre”, and not because I am convinced that our individual worldviews are wrong, but because I pragmatically believe that an epistemologically-flexible individual is better suited to reap the benefits of our globally wired reality. Only those who change the way in which they believe what they believe in and drop the assumption that they are in possession of the true can actually unlock the empathic potential of our era. Leaving our minds hostage to our own private beliefs is a recipe for disaster in an interconnected world and a clear obstacle for intellectual empathy. The time is right for a change in perspective.