In the past year or so, there's been a spate of books emphasizing the essential role the quality of 'empathy' plays in humanity. This includes: Born to Be Good, by the Ekman (the emotions guy) disciple Dacher Keltner, also behind The Greater Good Science Center, which is about as touchy-feely as science gets, Beyond Revenge by Michael McCullough which explains the importance of forgiveness, The Age of Empathy, by leading primatologist Frans de Waal, who dares to ask, what if Bonobos had been the primary focus of our evolution research instead of traditional Chimpanzees? and even a how-to book, Mirroring People, about how you can use all this new science of empathy to your social advantage...lol. And today, Arianna Huffington recommends for her bookclub (could she possibly replace Oprah?) The Empathetic Civilization, insisting that it's teachings will be the dawn of a new age, the transition from the "Age of Reason" to the "Age of Empathy".
In some ways, I think this trend is a response to the enormous influence and subsequent acceptance of selfish values as an essential part of humanity from Dawkins' The Selfish Gene. And really, I'm all for that. I think the emphasis placed on selfish instincts has led to a lot of over-simplification and unsatisfying theories about some of our most basic human experiences (to start, love).
But I think there's something more going on here. When you look up Chimpanzee on wikipedia, chimps are led by "alpha males" and bonobos are a "matriarchal" society. And it doesn't take much to translate the transition from an 'age of reason' to an 'age of empathy' to 'age of male-domination' to 'age of female domination'. Reading between the lines on these things, I start to feel like characteristics normally associated with women are now scientifically trendy, and I worry this will come to be seen as a 'victory' for the feminist movement. Individuals are being painted as 'fundamentally' having empathetic characteristics, and I have a problem with that.
Don't get me wrong. I cry every time I read the NYTimes or listen to NPR, think revenge is completely idiotic and there is definitely a part of me that wishes everyone took classes in college about how fundamentally good everyone is. And I'm not saying that these scientists and social observers were intentionally suggesting women be in charge instead of men. But rather, I think it's always wrong to suggest that people are in some sense 'fundamentally' one way or the other. And further, I don't think this should be a point of celebration or emphasis for the feminist movement. Ideally, feminism should be about equality, not domination. Isn't the ideal that we will someday balance these forces that both play a role in all of us? To unify reason and emotion, domination and submission, empathy and selfishness? Can't that be what the new 'age' is about?