While watching football on the weekend (GO RIDERS!)I found myself getting pretty intense, even though I was watching the game by myself. I haven’t actually felt like that since I quit playing competitive sports. Why am I so worked up? What’s going on? I started trying to come up with other things which elicit a physical reaction even though you aren’t even remotely involved and are unlikely to be involved any time soon. After a little thought and a smart ass comment by a student I realized pornography works pretty much the same way.
What makes these two things so interesting? The fact that we get wrapped up in watching them as if we were actually doing it ourselves. Some would say that this indicates a great flaw in our current society. We’re constantly indulging base pleasures and not doing important things.
I’d argue the exact opposite. The fact that we have a physical response to something we see other people doing says something pretty amazing about human beings. It says we have the ability to project ourselves into different situations and feel what other people feel - in short it says we have empathy. Think about it. We choose to empathize with a sports team and feel some of the highs and lows of competition. We watch physical intimacy between other people and feel aroused ourselves.
Empathy is what makes society possible. The fact that we can feel what someone else feels serves as a check on our greed and selfishness. Without empathy, we’d have to work a lot harder to get people to pay attention to those among us who need help. We’d also have to spend a lot more time and energy on controlling people’s behaviour to limit the damage we could do to each other. In fact, without empathy it’s unlikely that we would have been able to achieve anything like the standard of living we have now. Without empathy life truly would be “nasty, brutish, and short”.
Spectator sports and pornography are not base, low brow, or pathetic. They are examples of empathy in action. They are realizations of exactly what it is that makes us truly human – the ability to feel what others feel. It isn’t a football stadium or an adult theater, it’s a shrine to empathy.