Monday, June 17, 2013


On a day when multiple alerts pointed me to an article that argued that ability to empathize will be the top skill employers look for among job applicants in 2020, I also get to read this article on empathy and disgust.  The long and short of it is that empathy is a learned capacity, as is disgust.  Easy enough, it seems.  But what do we do when empathy and disgust are both culture-specific?

Take for example my attitude toward animals.  At age 12, in grade 6, I cared for a mouse that somebody rescued in the field somewhere.  Adults were repulsed by this mouse, but I put it inside my shirt and went about my day.  Someone suggested that I should become a vet as someone always did throughout my youth when they saw me rescue crows, squirrels, paralyzed kittens.  So I went to vet school.  Vet school opened my eyes to the role of veterinarians in world food security, poverty alleviation and reducing the impact of zoonotic diseases.

Now, I worry when I think of my children rescuing feral mice, rabbits, racoons, dogs.  Plague, parasites, rabies...All I can think of is exposure to infectious agents.  And I have constructed, in my mind, a hierarchy of empathy.  People come first -- working to ensure less malnutrition in the world ranks high on my list of values.  I am disgusted with our apathy when I think of children hungry for food; their parents hungrier for more of life's opportunities.  With age and specialization, the cultural context of my existence has gradually changed. And so has my conscious choice and ability to empathize or feel disgust.              

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