According to Dictionary.com, “empathy” is described as “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of another.” To put it more succinctly, empathy is the ability to “walk a mile in another’s shoes.”
I think empathy is dying, and it needs our help.
it doesn't take much more than turning on the nightly News to see a profound lack of empathy in our culture. In fact, the issue has spread all the way up to the highest office in the land, President of the United States. President Donald J. Trump is a man who has been adulated by his fans, and elected (at least in part) for his lack of empathy. One doesn't need to search too deeply to find Donald Trump political posters printed with things like "Trump 2016: Fuck Your Feelings!" or "Proud irredeemable Deplorable"; Referencing Hillary Clinton's comment calling trump supporters "Deplorables" due to their support of Donald Trump in spite of (and likely because of) his more controversial comments during the campaign. Including, but not limited to his mocking of a disabled reporter during a campaign speech. Trump's apparent lack of empathy has been seen as a huge positive by his supporters. And they, in many cases, have followed suit. Taking this chance to rail against what they have considered to be a culture poisoned by political correctness. Trump, in their minds, has given them the opportunity to “speak freely” again. Now, so emboldened, they wear their old bigotries and hatreds proudly once again.
Those bigotries on their own are bad enough, but attitudes like those amongst those social groups can lead to a distinct reduction in empathy for people outside those particular social groups.
You can see this effect in the recent immigration debate happening in the United States. President Trump has been stoking fears about criminal illegal immigrants coming over the southern border since the beginning of his campaign. Despite the fact that the overall numbers of people coming over the border illegally has been in decline for over a decade.
Despite this fact, he has railed harshly against illegal immigration, calling it one of our top national security concerns.
He has even gone so far as to start construction of a wall on the border, one he says he wants to get the Mexican government to pay for. He has also enacted a zero-tolerance policy on the border, meaning that anyone attempting to cross the border illegally is detained, regardless of the context. This had recently led to families seeking asylum being detained while they awaited a hearing in front of an immigration judge.
Worse still, until an outcry caused an executive order to be written, the children of those families were removed from their parent's custody and sent to hastily constructed detention facilities along the border. Some in abandoned Walmart stores, others in Tent Cities in the hot Texan desert. The lack of empathy involved in implementing a plan to strip children from their asylum-seeking parents and squirrel them away in what amounts to internment camps is stunning. And was (quite frankly) shocking, at least to me.
Paraphrasing a post from Facebook:
As expected, the reaction from some of the more extreme Trump supporters on social media was horrific to put it kindly. Calling the South American undocumented immigrants violent criminals, animals, dogs, vermin, and an infestation. The lack of ability to see these people as fellow humans who in many cases were just trying to make a better life for their family was frankly depressing.
Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of examples of Trump supporters who felt terribly for these people but simply prioritized our national safety above their lives. While I disagree with these people, I can understand their feelings.
In the eyes of some of these Trump supporters however, these people had been reduced to a status that was somewhere just shy of human. They were utterly unable to distinguish the fact that these asylum seekers were real people who felt that they were in such danger or desperation that they needed to pack up their family and what little they could carry, and flee to another country. Leaving everything and everyone they know behind. To those extreme Trump Supporters, these people were no longer people, but simply a scourge, an evil, a group to be removed for the good of the country. Nothing more.
This process of "othering" can in it's worst cases lead to individuals who become violently radicalized against people outside of the social group with whom they identify. This is the mechanism which was weaponized by the Nazi's during the holocaust, leading to the ostracization, then internment, and then eventually death of 6 million Jewish people. Lest you think we are past this kind of horrific activity, it's still in use to this day in places like Darfur, where a policy of ethnic cleansing has resulted in the deaths of nearly a half of a million people.
Unfortunately, this tendency towards othering (at least to some degree) is part of the fabric of our humanity. Humans have always tended towards our tribal nature in one way or another. From packs of hunter-gatherers millennia ago, to todays nations, religions, and even sports teams. It's our nature to seek out groups of like-minded people with whom you can identify. It’s one of the major reasons sports are so influential in our culture. We all yearn for a team to root for and a team to vilify. But as our culture becomes more global, and the world gets smaller, it becomes much more important to make sure we do as much as we can to not insulate ourselves. and to treat our "others" with empathy.
Unfortunately, the more I look, the less empathy I see.
Studies have shown that Liberal/Progressively Minded people tend to be generally speaking more empathetic than conservatives, who tend to be more pragmatic. But that liberal sense of empathy is trumped (pun intended) by our affiliations to our political groups. So, I’m sorry Liberals, but we are just as guilty in this death of empathy as anyone else.
The group liberals show the least empathy towards is none other than the Trump supporting Republicans themselves. They are our “other”.
In fact, I bet some of the more liberal minded among you read the earlier parts of this article thinking to yourself about how terrible and evil those Trump loving Republicans are. After all, how can anyone who is capable of thinking things that horrific have morals? How could anyone agree with their stance? The people who do agree must be just as bad, Right? How nice would it be to turn on that nightly news and not have to hear the horrible things that President Trump and his supporters say on a daily basis? I mean nothing that they say is of any real worth right?
Perhaps, you've even thought about how this country would be better if they were just gone altogether. Never to be seen again?
Congratulations! You’ve become exactly who and what you hate.
Don't feel bad. This path is a slippery downhill slope. It’s not hard to make one mistake, and slip a little, or make another, and slip even farther. Falling until you no longer recognize where (or perhaps even who) you are.
It’s easier than ever these days to find yourself hating and then slowly dehumanizing the people you disagree with.
That means that in these most trying times, it’s more important than ever to remember that the people you argue and disagree with are still people. People with loves, hatreds, interests, families. You can disagree with them, dislike what they say, dislike what they stand for. Heck you can dislike them entirely as people. But please never forget that they are just that. People.
And maybe, just maybe, we can try to remind those that we disagree with that WE are people as well. We all could do with a bit more empathy. I’d hate to see it die out for good. Because, when it does, I fear we will not be far behind.
Now some food for thought:
The photo above is an interesting one. If you haven't seen it before, It's called "The Pale Blue Dot".
When the Voyager 1 Probe was leaving the solar system, the team supervising the craft decided to have it turn around and take a photo of Earth from it's distant vantage point. The resulting photo showed the Earth to be so small from the point of view of Voyager 1, that it was nothing more than a Pale Blue single pixel of the image. Take a minute to really look at that.
I think the astronomer and author Carl Sagan said it best while he was reflecting upon that very photo:
“Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.”
A bit of perspective is a hell of a drug. Isn't it?
If you take anything away from this article, please make it this:
Never give up on what you believe to be right. Fight hatred and evil wherever you find it. Our country will only fall apart if we let it. But also, please never give up on what it means to be kind. Never forget the power of what a bit of empathy can do. Lead by example. Our world is small, and it's the only one we have. Let's make the best of it.