Starbucks and Anti-Semitism
There is a curious thing that happens in coffee shops. People sit around the room, typing away at their laptops and then someone needs to get up to use the bathroom. But it would be super inconvenient to have to pack up all of your stuff into your bag and take it with you. Maybe you still have coffee on the table, a notebook open or you just don’t want to lose your seat.
Of course, leaving belongings unattended is simply not an option. Trusting a public room full of strangers to not steal your stuff is unheard of in most western countries. So you turn to the absolute stranger at the table next to you, and ask “Can you watch my stuff while I run to the bathroom?” The stranger promptly agrees and you are off.
Now, given the abnormally large amount of time I spend in various coffee shops, I have begun to view myself as a type of amateur coffee shop anthropologist. Naturally I wanted to discover more about this phenomenon so I did what any other self-proclaimed amateur anthropologist with absolutely no background in anthropology would do and made contact with the local population.
This past Wednesday as I sat in the local Starbucks answering emails, a young woman asked me to watch her belongings for a moment. When she returned and thanked me, I asked her why she felt comfortable leaving her stuff with a random stranger. After a short, uncomfortable chuckle, she said:
“It’s always easier to trust one person than a big group!”
Last year, a psychologist named Paul Bloom published a book called Against Empathy where he gathered an array of clinical studies to demonstrate the point that empathy (the ability to internalize another’s pain) is a fundamentally ineffective and actually antithetical guide for moral reasoning. Bloom’s overall thesis is that empathy actually blinds our more rational side with our emotions, causing us to poorly judge various moral reasoning cases.
One memorable example that Bloom offers in defense of his argument is that a picture of single starving child evokes more empathy than a visual of hundreds of starving children, even if the child from the first picture is amongst the second group. Given that humans can always better relate to and personally identify with another individual, the first picture was able to stimulate empathy in a way that the second image could not.
Now Bloom’s overall point is that the pathologies of empathy are immediately evident when we consider how individuals, groups, or causes are able to hijack our empathy and cause us to completely fail to properly reason through difficult moral scenarios.
Bloom’s point is well-taken, given how important it is to avoid having our emotions cloud our rational judgment in large scale moral cases. But maybe, like the coffee shop phenomenon, there is a way to turn the innate pathologies of empathy into a positive?
When we see a group of people that we don’t know, like another religion or the population in a coffee shop, we cannot help but be intimidated. We tend to see all of these strangers as a united group of “others” and immediately form cognitive “in” and “out” groups, which results in all sorts of psychological and moral blind spots.
If we take a moment to reach out and meet an individual, I have found that the group as a whole automatically seems friendlier. The face to face contact with this individual inevitably stimulates empathetic feelings, which are then subconsciously applied to the group. Perhaps the reason why I feel comfortable leaving my computer on the table is not that I know that the one individual I randomly chose and asked is completely trustworthy. Rather it is because once I remind myself that the collective group is made up of individuals like myself, I feel overall more comfortable trusting the group.
I have found that the exact same principle holds true when talking about intrafaith and interfaith. When dealing with another religion (or even other subdivisions within your religion) it is all too easy to think of them as a collective “other”. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of saying “all Orthodox Jews are X” or “all Muslims are Y”. And we all know how dangerous this type of thinking can be.
The real way to repair relationships between disparate groups, whether it be religious, political, etc., is to find an individual from that group and create a relationship with them. Large collaborative events and learning about other religions is great, but it really only acts as a means to the end of being able to form true bonds with individuals on the other side.
As Jews we should be especially attuned to the dangers of psychological in-group and out-groups. Even without falling completely for the lachrymose theory of Jewish history, it is pretty safe to say that Jews have suffered greatly by being lumped up together as one nefarious “other”.
Whether it was because of our supposed genetic inferiority, moral depravity, or refusal to conform to the dominant religion, for most of our history the term “the Jews” has generally had a negative connotation. Even a quick glance at our history should immediately wake us up to the realization of how important it is to parse any large group into the individual level.
So next time you see yourself starting to view an entire group as a big, scary, united, collective other - just imagine that you are in a coffee shop and really have to use the bathroom. Start up a conversation with another individual and realize that there are many more commonalities between us than differences.
Have something to add? We'd love to hear from you. Please comment below to share.
Why doesn't God clarify for us which religion is correct, once and for all, to stop religious wars? See answers from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis here.
If you have a question about Jewish values that you would like to ask rabbis from multiple denominations, click here to enter your question. We will ask rabbis on our panel for answers and post them. You can also search our repository of over 700 questions and answers about Jewish values.
For more great Jewish content, please subscribe in the right hand column. Once you confirm your subscription, you'll get an email whenever new content is published to the Jewish Values Online blog.