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honing empathy

The topic of our last Free@VT meeting was global warming. Somewhat unfortunately, i now reflect, by my opening discussion comment i steered the conversation into the question of our obligation to take what steps we can to mitigate the destruction of the ecosystem, rather than (for instance) how we might accomplish that, and more specifically how me might mitigate the corrosive impact of climate change deniers.

I was delighted to find myself surprisingly moved by a comment made by our Vice President, Daniel. He shared a brief history of his family’s long association with the same region — and much of the same land — and expressed how important it felt to him to reciprocate, by his treatment of this land, the bounty and space and home that the land had provided his ancestors for several generations.

This is where a lot of skeptics, myself included, feel their skeptic sense tingle and react by dismissing the comment outright as emotional, anthropomorphizing, and, indeed, not even an argument at all.

But i think there’s room for us to be a bit more nuanced than that.

While it is important for us to learn to craft reasonable arguments, i find it equally — reciprocally — important for us to learn to tease a suitable argument out of a meaningful story. (The story wouldn’t’ve been meaningful had it not resonated with something.) Yes, we should be able to sketch decent, detailed arguments that comprise an accurate and precise representation of our viewpoint. But we should not become so reliant on these high-resolution images that when confronted with an impressionist painting we ascribe it little worth and move on without a pause.

That’s also not to say that emotional appeals and pandering should be encouraged in freethought conversations. If you can make your point precise, please do so.

But if your point defies precision because you haven’t got sufficiently sophisticated language ready at hand, or if your point involves the emotional appeal of a certain perspective, then please make it — emotionally, colorfully, poetically, allegorically, however gets it across. We should be ready and able to help you tease it apart and extract an argument. And maybe that argument is inept, and your emotional appeal deceptive. We will have at least figured that out.

In this case, i got something out of Daniel’s appeal that i wouldn’t have expected to be able to get out of something sounding so very much like animistic woo. I got that there may be some benefit to us thinking — allegorically, not literally, and certainly not spiritually — of the land we till, develop, or otherwise maintain as a legitimate object of respect or reverence. It may provide an effective way for us to adopt a more ecologically sustainable mindset. It may keep us better motivated and prepared to defend our sustaining land from invaders, human or otherwise, and to better understand the problems facing it than to adopt a simplistic solution being peddled beyond its domain of efficacy. It might serve to help us hone our empathy, especially if our work keeps us away from other people for many hours of each day.

I might go deeper into any of these possibilities but the point, i hope, is made. There’s plenty of room for us to empathize with pets whose brains are demonstrably incapable of exhibiting the complex range of emotions, let alone symbolic associations, with which we give character to this empathy. Provided we are careful to remember that we are engaged in an emotional exercise very different from our dealings with other self-aware beings, i see little to lose and much to gain from encouraging the respect and reverence that much of the environmental demographic — occasionally to the chagrin of the skeptical demographic — continues to promote.

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