Formal picture spot, under the Welcoming Pine — Yellow Mountain (Huangshan), Anhui Province, China
Above, in Chinese characters, is a classic chengyu — a short, Chinese idiomatic expression telling a story. This is the one about the old man who lost a horse. The village people came up to him. “What bad news, Wong!” He replied, “Good news, bad news, who knows?” The next day, his horse came back, with another horse. The townspeople once again returned — “Good news, bad news, who knows?” he said. And so the story goes on.
So it is when we talk about empathy and relationships. When you arrange empathetic levels in a pyramid, inevitably someone will want to claim a higher status because of an ostensibly more evolved viewpoint.
But empathetic levels simply are. And it may be true that as one evolves, one’s capacity for understanding (as we will see) can expand, there’s no guarantee. Relationships happen in the context of other relationships. Good news, bad news — who knows?
And that the context that one must understand externally defined relationships. Externally defined relationships, by the inherent virtue of being defined by others, are not as dependent on empathy, and so are typically characterized by the lower empathetic modes. A policeman, father, mother. All of these have defined roles in society. Most externally defined relationships apply to an individual in the singular, and gain context only in the framework of a power structure or a hierarchy. Armies and Navies are famous for their hierarchies, of course, but universities are not far behind. Someone with a title speaks with authority invested in them by their status in society.
Culture, which simply defined, is a set of shared beliefs that have evolved inside a community of individuals, be that a region, state, or nation, often defines these external relationships. Asian culture, for example, is replete with codes for managing the parent-child relationship, to the point where there are volumes of books on filial piety and its effects on society. Position and authority are both regulated and protected, though, by external codes — some very complex — that modulate privilege.
But when you boil it down, they rest on belief. You believe that a police officer is enforcing the law because that is their external definition in society. You believe a mother provides care to her children because she is a mother. You believe that when a father punishes or rewards his child, he is doing the right thing — because he is the father. You believe the physicist knows what she is talking about because she is the authority on the subject area.
What becomes obvious is that all these definitions are based on often complex mental models of how people see the world, which is directly related to information exchange in society. And these mental models are designed by society to rest heavily in your limbic system. If a cop says ‘Put your hands up!’ you feel a knot in your stomach and you obey. If your mother says ‘I love you!’ you feel a warm wash of reassuring emotion. You’re not supposed to process so much. You just do.
Takeaways: External defined relationships, though they may be associated with actions that an individual has taken (like earning a degree), are assigned outside the individual. A judge says that you are husband and wife. A university says you are a graduate. They are accompanied by shared mental models on what these relationships mean — and as such, are fundamentally belief-based constructs.