Global Empathy

The vaccine for the 21st Century

By Arya Bhatia

In March, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and we realized that the human race could not simply turn to a product of science and innovation to ensure our survival. It was also the first time we heard the term, social distancing– the only fail-proof protection from the virus, a solution completely rooted in human coordination. It was the first time in our lives where we as a collective human race had to step up and take individual responsibility in the efforts to solve a collective problem. We had to rise to the occasion and hold ourselves accountable in a way that had never been asked of us before. 

Today, however, I ask myself: “Can an individualist attitude solve a challenge whose solution lies in a collectivist mindset?” And the answer is no.

About 6-7 months after COVID-19 became a reality for most of us, we realise that the impact it has left on different parts of the world can be deeply attributed to one of the best evidenced and fundamental theories of cultural psychology: individualism v/s collectivism. Two powerful words which define the very core of the social structures we live in; words that aren't mutually exclusive, but rather work in harmony-- in different proportions–to organize our societies and determine how they function.  

While individualism can be defined as a social theory favouring freedom of action for individuals over the group, collectivism is a value that is characterized by an emphasis on cohesiveness among individuals and prioritization of the group over the self. 

As an Indian citizen, my life in communitarian India serves as a contrast to individualistic societies, which I notice are more self-oriented and socially and psychologically more isolated. Historically the Anglophonic west has been branded as individualist while the Confucian and Sanskrit inspired east has been referred to as collectivist.  This is also evident in the way language – which often reflects what does and doesn’t matter in a society – has adapted to the societal structure. Words like “personal rights,” “freedoms,” and “privileges'' are all widespread and commonly used in the West.  Though these words can be easily translated into Hindi (India’s national language), they tend to feel just like that – awkward translations. On the other hand mildly suffocating words and concepts like  “societal harmony,”  “moral consciousness,” and “societal standing,” which have their indigenous words in the Hindi language, may sound awkward to westerners.  The contrast in this selection of particular words only serves evidence to how collectivist cultures are far more community-minded and are willing to adapt to keep the peace and safety even if it takes away from their personal freedom – something that can be attributed to their compassion or concern for what others think of them. Either way, This in turn only increases the efficacy of massive social coordination. The World Health Organisation found that the two countries, Japan and South Korea, which responded well to the coronavirus did so through this same social coordination. They quoted that Collectivism may be a reason why these countries performed so well. 

Hence, whilst there’s nothing inherently better, or worse, about individualism or collectivism — like any system of cultures, both have their merits and shortcomings. While individualism does give one the freedom to express themselves, collectivism is more suited to adapt to a worldwide pandemic and may increase its sway in the age where massive social coordination is key to overcoming crises.

However, this ability to socially coordinate must not end with the pandemic but rather become the new normal because tomorrow Gen Z is going to face many more crises than previous generations that can range from climate change to nuclear warfare to cyber attacks (an alien invasion or rogue AI maybe?!) that can only be controlled through an even higher level of collective action than we are seeing today – which is not good enough. 

During the COVID pandemic, we have become privy to how leading political and economic unions of countries and inter-governmental organizations globally are unable to work together to create a coordinated strategy to beat this virus. In the future, International relations can no longer be plagued by isolationism and nationalism but rather need to be characterized by trust and collective action. When it comes to the global crises of tomorrow, what will truly matter is whether or not countries are socially coordinated in their external affairs and not just their internal societies. Sounds cliché, but now is the time to present a united front, because the human race is past the phase of ‘war amongst humanity’ and has entered the phase of ‘war on humanity’ as the coronavirus has shown us. 

However, though this sentiment of cooperation is not one that can be built overnight, we need to begin somewhere. As voters who elect leaders that represent us on the world stage and set the tone of our international relations, the responsibility to appoint leaders with the mindset for collective action is on Gen Z as global citizens of the world

But before we begin on this journey we must embody what we wish to see-because alas the government only reflects the motives, attitudes, and perspectives of those that vote for them. This is why the electorate must be able to relate and connect with the rest of humanity before they can expect their leaders to do the same. But, How can we do this? 

Global Empathy. An idea that we, as citizens of the world, must strive to develop the ability to understand, accept, and interact with individuals from all different backgrounds, regardless of race, nationality, language, religion, skin color, sex, etc. This is the empathy revolution that will allow us to develop the ability to perceive others’ feelings (and to recognize our own emotions), to imagine why someone might be feeling a certain way, and to have concern for their welfare. Once empathy is activated, compassionate action and trust is the most logical response. 

But for this to happen we can no longer operate in our own bubbles of cultures, ethnicities, or religions and be oblivious towards all happening around us. The tech-enabled space-time compression we live in today has rendered our excuses invalid and broken down most barriers that once existed.  We need to make an active, concerted effort into living a more shared experience by being conscious of all that is going on around us instead of dismissing it simply because it doesn't affect us. Empathizing is hard but I personally try by staying up to date with the news, engaging with different communities around me to listen to their stories and perspectives. But most importantly RESPECT & TRUST. Finally, we can no longer make decisions with an individualistic mindset and need to work towards changing the ‘ME’ to a ‘WE’ – because in today’s interconnected world everything directly or indirectly affects us all. 

Finally, we must acknowledge that connecting empathically with others—to feel with them, to care about their well-being, and to act with compassion—is critical to our lives, helping us to get along, work more effectively in the face of crises, and thrive as a society.