Professor David Orenstein Examines Empathy and Social Justice

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

What is the strong bond connecting a struggling mother in Sweden, a rich lawyer in Nigeria, and an Orthodox rabbi in New York’s Crown Heights neighborhood?

MEC Professor David Orenstein has a deceptively simple, disarming answer:  they are connected through their common humanity.  They not only share common ancestry which goes back generations, he said, but a wealth of social science research shows that our ability to empathize with each other is hard-wired into our evolutionary biology. “You can see that children are innately empathetic,” Orenstein said.

 “We are all walking around in human bodies – there is nobody here with 15 legs and a pincer for a mouth,” Orenstein, an anthropologist, said in a recent interview.  “But we are living in a time when we seem to be going backwards, and not just politically but socially and economically in terms of political justice.   How do we develop more empathy?  You start with the most holistic base, that we are all human.”

Professor Orenstein, perhaps the most prominent humanist anthropologist in the City University of New York (CUNY) system, recently examined those ideas in an article for Tikkun magazine. His piece stressed the importance of empathy in a time of hardened political and social stances and a U.S. government with “a nativist approach to national and international politics.”   Professor Orenstein also serves as the American Humanist Association’s representative to the United Nations and serves on several UN human rights committees.

He wrote “Human Empathy as a Primary Source for Peace and Justice” after a chance meeting at MEC on Oct. 19 with Tikkun editor Rabbi Michael Lerner. Rabbi Lerner participated in a MEC panel called “Creating a New Social Justice Movement.”

The MEC panel aimed to expose students to varying viewpoints, historical context on how movements are shaped, as well as ideas about what roles students can play.  Rabbi Lerner evoked the concept of empathy by noting that the Holocaust made it easy for him to identify with the black struggle for justice.

It is easier to be biased than to take a walk in someone else’s shoes, Orenstein said. But acknowledging that we have more in common than we are different is the first step to breaking down walls built upon social and cultural constructs.

Professor Orenstein, an ordained humanist clergy member, compared it to the moment in the film The Matrix when the hero stops an incoming hail of bullets. He examines one bullet and realizes that it is powerless. In real life, people must “stop all this measuring that comes at you all the time from media, parents and religion,” the professor said. “Take a real look at each other and realize that while we pray to different gods or no god, choose different careers, speak different languages, the common thread  is our more ancient common humanity.”

Professor Orenstein, deputy chairperson in MEC’s Social and Behavioral Sciences Department, recently appeared on CUNY TV to discuss the philosophy of Humanism.