Nigerians and the Empathy Gap

empathyToo often when we track our progress as a nation, we look at surface indicators: how many roads do we have, how many schools and hospitals? We depend on things we can count: the number of boreholes and wells, the number of people with jobs and the number of children dying of preventable diseases. While these numbers are supremely important, they don’t tell the whole story. And when we are confronted with numbers such as the recent report on the amount of people in our country living as slaves or in slave-like conditions, we have to ask ourselves whether the numbers we are tracking are the true indicators of our progress.

Many writers and thinkers have noticed what has been termed an “empathy gap” or “empathy deficit” in Nigerian society. Empathy is the ability to identify with the emotions of others and respond appropriately. It has been proven that, in general, people are more likely to sympathise with those who are more like them in terms of race, gender, nationality and socio-economic status. Thus, when we as Africans hear about a tragedy in Africa, we are more likely to feel concern for the victims than when we hear about a similar event Asia or Latin America. However, with Nigerians, this isn’t exactly true.

Nigerians seem to lack the ability to recognise or respond to the tragedies happening within their own country. A good example of this is the ongoing struggle against the terrorist insurgency of Boko Haram, which has left a bloody trail of death and destruction across the north east of this country. Every day we hear stories of innocent men, women and children who have been caught in the crossfire and yet we seemed more moved by the death of the African-American teen Trayvon Martin than about mass tragedies such as the slaying of students and the massacre of villagers and travellers.

empathy-1Part of the reason for this empathy gap is the breakdown of traditional societal connections that once held us together. Webs of social obligation that were underpinned by religious mores have disappeared – to be largely replaced by religious fanaticism and the love of money. In the past it might have been taboo to kill because of a fear of the wrath of the Gods, today it is taboo to kill – unless the person is from the wrong family, tribe, religion or class background. And with enough money, there are no taboos.

However, a government’s job is to provide its citizens with more than simply better standards of living. It is up to the leaders of a country to inspire its people to move beyond their current state. We as Nigerians need to take better care of each other on a larger scale and our government needs to help us do this. Other governments are tapping into the worldwide kindness movement which are encouraging people to do nice things for each other and their environments. Perhaps it is time for something similar here?

As writer Chris Ngwodo puts it:

“What we should fear even more than the psychotic malice of terrorists is the loss of empathy that desensitizes us to tragedies as long as they are happening to other people [who] are not kin or fellow believers. … When we cease to feel the afflictions of our fellow beings, it is a sign that that we are losing our humanity; and that our society is becoming a jungle. In such conditions, no one, regardless of ethnicity or religion is truly safe.”

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