Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Putting Yourself in Another's Skin, Empathy, and Art

I've been watching a lot of episodes of the television show "House" lately. I don't watch ordinary tv, just Netflix on my computer. And Netflix Canada just uploaded the entire series. So now I get to see what all the fuss about this very popular program is about. I admit, it is quite mesmerizing. I've been feeling guilty about all the time, but it occurred to me that watching the show isn't a complete waste. 

In the first season there is an on-going subplot involving a wealthy pharmaceutical magnate, Edward Vogler, who "gives" the hospital $100 million (actually, buys control of it) and ends up being chairman of the board of directors. I've sat on charity boards and I have to admit that this portrayal is probably the most dysfunctional depiction of a board chair I've ever seen. He steps in and starts micro-managing decisions by the CEO and bullies the members of the board---including ordering it to fire both individual doctors and any board member that opposes him. (I'm not going to suggest that this can't happen---some truly awful things happen on non-profit boards---but this was a HUGE divergence from how things are supposed to work.) 

One of the things that this monster does is tell Dr. House that at a medical conference he has to flog some new drug that Vogler has recently put on the market. Since House is considered one of the best diagnostic doctors in the world, this is a big deal. The problem is that the drug in question is simply a rehash of an older drug who's patent has expired. A much cheaper---and equally effective---generic is available. If doctors prescribe this new product, they will be seriously harming poor patients without a drug plan and helping artificially jack-up the cost of health care in the USA (already much higher than anywhere else in the world, due to shenanigans like this.) 
House and Vogler
The problem is that Vogler has told House that if he doesn't give this speech he will have to fire one of the young doctors that make up his diagnostic team. This has nothing at all to do with money, as Vogler admits that he is doing this just to punish House and force him to learn how to do as he is told. (This is why a properly run non-profit board creates a fire-wall between the board and the CEO, who is supposed to make these sorts of decisions. This would make for bad drama, however, and, unfortunately isn't always the way things really work.)

House tries, but ultimately gags when he tries to make the speech as ordered, so he simply explains why the drug is a waste of money. Vogler freaks and orders the board to fire House. Since firing a tenured doctor requires a unanimous verdict, House's friend Wilson invokes a effective veto by refusing to vote for this. Vogler responds by ordering the Board to vote to have Wilson kicked off the Board. 

Drama ensues. And, as you might imagine, the character that the series is named after ends up victorious. Vogler leaves the hospital and takes his $100 million with him. 


Why am I making such a fuss about this tv show?

Actually I was so upset by this fictional arc that I found myself having to put the computer on hold and walk around my home until I had cooled off enough to watch the show without exploding.

What the heck is wrong with me? Am I so immature that I can't tell the difference between a story and real life?

I fussed about my behaviour for a while and then I thought, "let's stop being judgmental and look at my mental phenomenon objectively".  After all, I am both a philosopher and a Daoist. Both are supposed to look at the world as it really is and not beat ourselves up because it (including ourselves) aren't the way we think we "should" be.


Let's start by looking at the following YouTube clip from the classic movie "To Kill a Mocking Bird". 

There are two important points here. First Atticus tells Scout about the importance of "considering things from someone else's point of view" or to "climb inside another's skin and walk around in it". (The second, where he talks about the value of compromise which he calls "an agreement reached by mutual consent" but which Scout defines as "bending the law", is also very important---but not relevant to this discussion.)  Like a lot of things in this movie, it appears to be a heartwarming simple father/daughter conversation, but it actually deals with some pretty complex issues. 

What exactly does it mean to "consider things from another's point of view" or "walk in someone else's skin"?

It seems to me that what it is about is using our imagination to try to identify those elements of a person's life that are similar and different to our own, put them together, and create a holistic vision of the motivations behind another person's behaviour. This requires, amongst other things, an attempt to stop thinking about how that person's behaviour affects your life and instead to consider how those actions exclusively affect the other person.  Another way of saying this is to treat other people as "subjects" instead of "objects".


This is not a trivial thing to do, as the show "House" neatly identifies.

One of the people on House's team is a brilliant young immunologist by the name of "Allison Cameron". Her character is motivated by an extreme sense of personal empathy towards others---to the point where she married a man dying of cancer while in med school. House misses no chance to tell her that this is a profoundly dysfunctional attitude for a doctor to have. It not only will create chaos in her personal life, but it will make her a worse doctor because her extreme empathy with patients will prevent her from objectively assessing their maladies. This is obviously true in the series, as whenever she has a patient with a terminal illness her response is to frantically try to find some other---treatable---cause for the symptoms instead of accepting the patient's death.
Allison Cameron from "House"
In the middle of the House/Vogler battle, however, a strange thing happens. Even though she has a very strong crush on House and sees him as some sort of "saviour doctor", she is very hurt by the fact that House refuses to "knuckle under" in order to save her job. (House has to fire one of his doctors and she takes the choice away from him by resigning.) As she resigns she complains that House really doesn't care about anyone else. He only saves his patients as a byproduct of his drive to always be "right".

What is surprising about this is the fact that from an outside perspective House is being extremely altruistic by refusing to "go along" with the insane drug industry system that is causing immense misery to poor people all over the USA. Cameron is very empathetic, but she has a failure in her inability to extend it beyond the person right in front of her to a person she's never met. This is a profound problem in our society because so many people "personalize" issues and cannot get emotionally engaged with issues on a theoretical level. House can, and that is one of the things that sets him apart from other people in the show and makes him seem so bizarre. (More on this specific issue in one of my old blog posts: "The Button Problem".)


OK, what does this have to do with my agitation about watching a mere television show?

Years ago I had a boss at a janitorial job who really liked to hear himself talk. One day he was blathering on about being in India with some friends who are really freaked out by a beggar who had no legs and was going around on a little cart asking for alms. He said he was dumbfounded by his friends who acted like they were afraid of him. He said he couldn't figure out the attitude. At this
This is an actor, I think, but this is what my boss was talking about.
point I offered an opinion that went something to the effect that "Perhaps his existence scared them because he popped the illusion that life is fair or that really, really bad stuff cannot happen to them. He is, after all, a living embodiment of how grotesquely fucked up their lives could potentially become---." My boss's jaw literally dropped. He thought for a while and said "Hey, you might have something there."

The important issue I am talking about is imagination. You cannot "put yourself in another's skin" without have a powerful imagination. And some people have a lot stronger imagination than others. I don't know how much it plays into people's intelligence, but it must have an awful lot to do with it.
Any sort of problem solver needs to be able to consider a lot of different things. Of course they also have to be able to discard most of them and decide which most effectively explains the facts, but there have to be ideas in the first place.

The value of good art---like the television show "House"---is that it allows people to get "into" the heads of other people and imagine what it must be like. This gives them the opportunity to "try out" that other perspective. I'll never be a doctor dealing with life and death issues, but watching how Gregory House and his colleagues work through these issues gives me an opportunity to work through a lot of different complex issues.


Jean Buridan
But why do I have to be so emotionally caught up in this story? Contrary to what a lot of our society tells us, emotions are an integral part of the thinking process. This is explained by the following thought experiment. Consider an intelligent donkey that is placed an absolutely equal distance between two absolutely equal piles of hay. Which one does it go towards? If there is absolutely no difference between the two, then there can be no rational reason for it to go from one to another. Yet it still chooses. How?

This is a teaching story is attributed to the medieval philosopher and physicist Jean Buridan. Actually, more than anything else, it's value resides in reminding people of the common experience of being "on the horns of a dilemma". This is the situation all people find themselves in at one time or another where they see two different options that seem to have equal value and so cannot make up our minds which way to go. Generally, what people have to do is "go with their gut instinct" and accept the consequences.

It could be argued that this decision isn't an "emotion" but some sort of random decision-making feature of the brain (sort of like flipping a coin.) But if so, I would argue that it must be somewhat related---even if only in function. That's because from self-observation my emotions seem to be very tightly connected to what motivates me to perform actions in life. I get very upset about the death of nature, so I've devoted huge swathes of my life to environmental activism. Similarly, when I proposed to my dear, sweet, lovely wife there was no conscious volition on my part. I simply asked her totally without premeditation. I suspect her response was similarly emotionally driven, as without hesitation she said yes.


Once we accept that emotions are part of a decision-making process, then I think I've explained why I had to stop the action and walk around the house for a while before I resumed watching the television show. The exercise of watching a good drama is about becoming engaged with the fictional character, or, as Atticus Finch says, "putting yourself in another's skin". And when I do that, I activate the emotions that come from the situation he finds himself in. The result is nervous energy that threatens to overwhelm my self-control. So instead of "losing it" and throwing something at my computer monitor, I put the show on pause and make a pot of tea.

Why do people do this sort of thing to themselves? Is it pleasurable? Not really. It made me feel so uncomfortable that I am writing a blog post about it. But obviously there is something to it, or else people like me wouldn't give Netflix money to serve this stuff up to us.

I would argue that it is because it serves a useful social purpose in that it allows us a safe, convenient way to exercise empathy towards people we have never met in situations we will probably never experience. This is tremendously important to the human race because it allows us to work through very important problems. In the episodes I referred to, many serious issues were raised.  For example, here are two: "How much power should a boss have over our behaviour?", and, "How do we balance conflicting demands between people we've never met versus those of us we see right in front of us?"

This is exactly the same sort of thing that all creatures indulge in as preparation for life. For example, look at the following YouTube clip of a snow leopard kitten playing with its mother. It's very obvious that it's play is preparation for hunting.

In much the same way, when people watch drama, read novels, etc, we are working through the complexities of social interactions. This is tremendously important to humanity, because our "evolutionary advantage" isn't thick fur or claws, like the snow leopard. Instead, it's our ability to create complex social communities. Humans have a very rare, but enormous useful evolutionary strategy:  Eusociality. That is what scientists call the ability of animals to work together in large colonies. Examples include ants, termites, bees, naked mole rats, people, and very few other animals. And I would argue that the human interest in drama is directly connected to it. That's why I get upset when I watch "House"---I'm learning how to think about some of the complex issues that face the human hive.