Culture and Empathy — Sidebars, or Why the Two Lovers in a Chinese Movie have to Die

Wedding picture 2

Wedding day, Alicia, me, Conor and Braden

It’s not easy to pigeonhole culture. But we can start with the British Dictionary’s definition: “the total of the inherited ideas, beliefs, values and knowledge that constitute the shared bases of social action.” Cultures  dictate aggregate societal views of relationships, as well as various mores, and as such are inextricably wound up with the levels of empathy in a society.  More tribal or authoritarian cultures are less empathetic, and more belief-based.  More evolved cultures tend to be more empathetic, and have more space for reason.

As such, cultures state what relationships are externally defined, as well as what space exists for independently generated relationships.  My preferred concept for this is that cultures provide the sidebars for the fundamental organizational principles in a given society, and as such, can bring reinforcement for certain types of lower-empathetic behavior, as well as provide ladders for higher-level modes of empathy that may not be widespread in a given society.  Cultures can bring out the best or worst in us.

One of my favorite ways of figuring out how empathy works in a given society is to look at their literature, or even more fun, their movies, and see how people interact.  Or rather, how they’re allowed to interact.  Great works of literature, of course, are signs of the times.  Reading Homer’s Odyssey lets you know that life in Chthonic transition Greece was not very empathetic, and certainly no picnic.  When Odysseus returns home, his son Telemachus hangs the various servant girls in the suitors’ court.  Can you imagine how the press would cover a mass hanging of women today?

Current cultures in transition also show empathy levels in love stories.  In the U.S., for example, it’s not enough to have formal roles for the various family members.  In the movie Meet the Fockers, everyone in two families — one very traditional authoritarian, and one more of the peace-and-love hippie variety — have to form independently generated, trust-based relationships.  Of course, this is very difficult, if not impossible, for reasons that we will cover (if you want to hold on to a term, the problem is what I call v-Meme mismatch) and some version of uncomfortable hilarity ensues.  Well, sort of.

Movies out of China are particularly fascinating.  In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragonyou know that the main character, Li Mu Bai, is gonna die when he falls in love with the daughter of the governor, and that there’s going to be even more carnage when the other beautiful woman in the film, Shu Lien, falls in love with Li Mu Bai.  The plot is complicated, but the bottom line is that even 15 years ago, Chinese society didn’t allow people to fall in love and get married.  In fact, for that transgression of independent relational generation, pretty much everyone gets killed, and no one gets laid.  Things are changing — but the fact that the movie is an icon in China tells you something.

One can also see devolution of cultures as well.  For those film buffs, contrast the typical current puff fare of ‘girl meets boy’ with the usual ‘they have a crisis’ and then ‘they get married and live happily every after.’  In relational terms, that would be usually some impulsive, magical connection, followed by independent relational generation, and finishing up with external relational definition and approval by society (husband and wife).  Everyone has to get a title to be bona-fide.  Contrast that to almost 50 years ago, and the movie The Graduate.  Dustin Hoffman sleeps with his potential mother-in-law, and gets the girl.  How about that?

Takeaways:  Culture is core to how empathy both manifests, and evolves in societies.  Watching movies and monitoring relational health, as well as physical health of the characters, is a great way to see how much latitude folks get in picking who they hang out with, as well as how things are changing over time in that culture.

Fun to watch:  Cinema Paradiso — what does this tell you about conflicting empathetic levels in post WWII Italian society?  (and hey — it’s a fun, great movie!)

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