A World without Empathy (And how it is Chaos)
What is empathy? Ask anyone off the street that question and they’ll probably tell you it’s a positive thing. They’ll say that it makes a good parent growing up, a good teacher in schools, a good boss at a job, a good doctor during an exam. They’ll tell you it makes a good thread in the weave of society, and they’re not wrong. Social scientists have noted many correlations between high empathy and being socially successful, be it at work, among friends, or when raising children (Goleman). Conversely, a lack of empathy can be discouraging, disgusting, and potentially devastating, from extreme examples like sex offense, to mundane examples like cutting in front of someone on the road. With such a glowing reputation, it seems truly illogical to not do our utmost to encourage and practice it every chance we get, yet in spite of this we still fall short. Obviously, empathy is met with resistance somewhere along the line, but is this an unavoidable fact of our biology, or is it something we can change? Indeed, is it something we should change? The answer to those questions is an emphatic yes: we can, and should, demonstrate more empathy than we do.
Empathy is not resisted openly; this we see, and that makes the apparent controversy surrounding it all the more difficult to track down. As is the case with many arguments, one of the primary factors in holding it back could very well be confusion over what it actually is. It is often confused with its close cousin sympathy, for instance, as the difference between the two is very subtle. Tricia Ellis-Christensen of wiseGEEK, a website dedicated to providing “clear answers to common questions”, summarizes the difference by saying that sympathy is the capacity to feel bad for someone, while empathy is the capacity to feel bad with someone. When demonstrating sympathy, someone might feel pity for a person. An empathic someone, on the other hand, actively places themselves in that person’s shoes, perhaps drawing on shared experiences in their own past that can help them understand better what that person is going through. Empathy is the capacity to understand where another is coming from. The capacity to recognize the profound effects treating someone as anything less than a living, breathing equal has on them. It is the ability to persistently and unflinchingly step outside ourselves and into the mind of another. Walking forward with that definition, we can and shall now examine two mindsets concerned with the concept of empathy (though there are certainly more than two).
Concerning empathy, two extreme perspectives generally pop up: the people who consider it an emotional trait, directly in opposition to logic, which is more obviously (if not concretely) useful, and the people who perceive it as a be-all end-all of everything ethical and good (Balkin). Perchance this is one of the place empathy is resisted, for neither party truly approaches empathy in the proper direction. The people on the first side, those who shun empathy, can be dismissed with relative ease since their argument stems from an incorrect definition of the trait. These people believe empathy to be solely an emotional trait, and thus in opposition to logic in much the same way love, hatred, or any other emotional trait is. Empathy is a trait which deals with emotions, certainly, but in terms of actual execution it is surprisingly logical. Sympathy is the process by which a person reacts emotionally to the emotional state of another, feeling sad or happy right along with them. Empathy, on the other hand, allows them to grasp why that person feels the way they feel, while keeping their own emotions recognizably separate. Empathy may often lead to sympathy, but not necessarily.
The people on the other side, the feelers, hit closer to the mark, at least in terms of defining it. However, their viewpoint, in which empathy is treated as a strictly beneficial trait, is not without its own flaws. Empathy is argued as a basis for morality, which is agreeable, yet it can also be a basis for less moral acts. Understanding how someone feels about a situation gives you a measure of power over them. It gives you insight into what makes them tick, allowing you to predict how they would act in a situation, and thus how best to alter the situation so as to make them act in the way you want them to act. A torturer, as an example, might in their own twisted way employ the ability to understand how others feel as a means of knowing how best to “make them crack” (Blair). Obviously there are overlying ethical issues surrounding this, such as whether or not a particular case of torture is justified. The victim could be a captured parent withholding the location of their family from would-be murderers, or they could be a captured terrorist with information on the location of explosives, ones that could potentially kill hundreds of people.
One need not look to such extremes to find practices that utilize empathy questionably, however. The ability to understand the emotional states of another can be utilized to great effect augmenting one’s powers of persuasion. Virtually all commercial businesses use empathy every day, successfully selling their wares through the distribution of advertisements carefully crafted to be appealing to the emotions (Tartakovsky). Take a cup of yogurt, for instance. There is no strictly logical reason to buy the yogurt, unless some kind of yogurt diet has been suggested to you by a doctor, but how much easier is it to do so if one sees an attractive person eating it, obviously enjoying the taste given the expression on their face? The capacity to put oneself in another’s shoes is ultimately a tool, and like every tool it can be used for good or for bad. Now that we have established this understanding of empathy, though, what do we do with it? Is it truly something we want more of in our society?
On the thirteenth of March, 2012, a bus crashed into a pawn shop in Cambridge, England (Looting). The bus was carrying a load of people on it, as buses tend to, though most of the potential tragedy at their expense was avoided. What was tragic about the occasion were the numerous witnesses to the crash, who rushed to the scene not to help the passengers but to loot the shop they had just shattered the front window of. Self-concern to the point of so blatantly disregarding others, even when they might be seriously hurt, is in diametrical opposition to empathy. What is more, Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence (and several other books) notes a distinct correlation between lack of empathy and “the most mean-spirited of crimes (106)”. A stronger word might have served better, as a side note, for crimes like rape, child molestation and parental abuse. The point is, again according to Goleman, part of what allows perpetrators of these most heinous crimes to act in the way they do is a sharp disparity between how they think their victim feels and how their victim actually feels. This emotional disconnection allows them (the perpetrator) to essentially ignore the reality of the situation when prompted to justify it. Rapists might tell themselves “if [they] resist, [they’re] only playing hard to get”; child molesters might use the line “I’m not hurting the child, just showing love”; and abusive parents might think what they’re doing is “just good discipline” (Goleman 106). These are both examples of what lack of empathy, the inability to consider how another person might feel, can affect a situation.
Of course on the other side you have the torturers and the advertisements: those methods of persuasion, even outright manipulation, which a keen understanding of the emotional side of subjects makes far stronger. However, these issues can generally be dismissed, at least more easily than the pro-empathy ones, when you consider that in these situations the problem is on both sides of the line. This argument as it relates to torture is something of a moot point, for reasons gone over immediately after the first mention of the practice. Knowing how to make a victim crack is a morally ambiguous ability dependent upon what sort of information is being withheld, and thus is neither pro-empathy or anti. The argument can be applied to advertisements, however, in that while they are designed to appeal to your emotions, it is very possible to desensitize yourself to them, especially with so many of the things trying to convince you day to day. On the flip side, it is markedly more difficult (and damaging) for a rape victim to benefit from these principles. Being on the receiving end of too much empathy ultimately poses far less of a problem than being on the receiving end of too little. Besides, in the majority of cases, understanding something is better than not understanding it. Understanding gives us options, options to choose based upon our experiences, preferences, or ethical code which direction is the correct one to head in. Now, in the knowledge empathy is an ultimately beneficial trait, let us examine additional places it is met with resistance, that we may better understand how to encourage it.
Empathy by definition, as has been continually explored throughout this essay, is the capacity to explore and understand the feelings of another. In that knowledge, it can be easily inferred that concern for the self is one of the primary contributing factors in inhibiting it. Let us therefore first examine the concept of self-interest; a concept which, like empathy, is controversial and easily misunderstood. Please note that the term “self-interest” is used loosely in this sense. Self-interest need not mean strictly one’s own self: it could also mean interest in one’s family, one’s race, or one’s nation, so long as it is your group over another.
When people hear the term “self-interest”, they tend to connect it with terms like “arrogance”, “self-centered”, and “narcissism”. Certainly self-interest plays a core part in these things, but it does not necessarily equal them. Introverted people in particular are a good example of this, for to possess an introverted mindset is to be “self-interested”, though not in the undesirable sense. What is meant by this is that an introvert tends to focus energy internally, spending more time inside their heads than outside (Tieger). In a temporary semi-divergence from the main point, this by no means suggests the introvert may be less capable of empathy. Indeed, they could arguably be more capable of it, since all that time spent in self-examination affords them an increased awareness of their own feelings, thus better allowing them to imagine how they might feel in a situation another person is going through. Widening the field, self-concern is a basic fact of human nature, and a necessary one at that. Without a degree of it, no species on the planet or off could survive unless it be under very specific circumstances. Without the drive to make their lives easier, whoever invented the wheel might never have invented the wheel. Without the concern for himself and his people, Martin Luther King Jr. might never have worked so hard to abolish segregation. Without the drive to satisfy his own curiosity, Leonardo Da Vinci might never have made such significant advances in the fields of everything ever. True narcissism, on the other hand, is what results when self-interest becomes dominant, growing so great as to completely crush any interest one might possess in other people. Maia Szalavitz of the STATS program marks a significant increase in narcissistic college students as of late, noting it as a primary contributor to the 40% empathy has dropped among them since the year 2000 (Szalavitz). What is causing this increase, though? What is different about today’s world? One of the biggest things people point to when asked that question is the self-esteem movement. Indeed, Szalavitz also points to it as a potential cause.
Though the term “self-esteem” itself had been around for a while, it really hit its stride as a movement in the 1960s, when it gained enough support to establish a foothold in the educational system (Callery). Correlations were drawn by science between self-esteem and a successful life, and schools started designing programs to develop it. Parents were encouraged to support their children “even through their mistakes” (Callery). This certainly sounds excellent, yes? It did then as well. Unfortunately, as the self-esteem movement marched on, scientists began noticing a disturbing lack of the benefits it had promised. The arguments against the movement could fill a book, and the hindsight arguments against it could fill several, but it is enough to say that the programs put into effect by schools and the community resulted in surprisingly little of the expected results. Perhaps part of the issue with it was our own ineptitude at designing such programs. Like pesticides and smoking, people did not question the long term effects, beneficial or detrimental. They saw only short-term benefits, and took the route to said benefits as quickly as they could. Reward a child with praise regardless of whether they did something correctly, and they may start believing they got the right answer even when they got the wrong answer (Callery). Tell a child one too many times how special and unique they are, and you get a child with an overblown view of themselves. A child with a narcissistic outlook on life. Ironically enough, empathy, the capacity to understand emotional states, would really have helped in refining this program. The point is the self-esteem movement has clearly contributed in some way to an increase in narcissism, and thus a decrease in empathy.
Perhaps the next major contributor to the decline of empathy is the decline of situations that teach it. As much as so many of us hate to admit it, technology seems to play a significant role in this. In the past, before the advent of things like television, playing with friends was all the rage. This argument is nothing new, and does tend to be overblown at times, yet there is an underlying truth to it that cannot be ignored. Television also happens to be a choice medium by which advertisements reach the public, so if we were to abolish it that would solve two problems (Sarcasm 404).
Television is not the only perpetrator, however: there exists an argument, for instance, that Facebook is to blame. But is Facebook truly a perpetrator in the destruction of empathy? How can a website dedicated to social contact so twist one of that contact’s most important tools? Tara Parker-Pope of the Well Column, New York Times, references a direct correlation between the number of “friends” a person accrued on these sites and the degree of importance they held themselves in. She questions, though, whether this apparent connection between narcissism and social sites means social sites cause, or simply attract. Senior news editor of PsychCentral Richard Nauert PhD in turn references a study conducted by the University of Georgia, a study suggesting that, while narcissism was not caused by these sites, it played a part in their creation and is actively reinforced by them. Rachel Gaynes of the Columbia Daily Tribune completes this argument by saying that, while not all of Facebook’s “175 million users” are narcissists, the tools at any Facebooker’s disposal prove particularly useful for those that are. The ability to create a profile representing yourself, tweak it to show only your best side, and otherwise inundate it with status updates on things like what you had for breakfast that morning is truly a narcissist’s dream made reality.
However, like the original self-interest dilemma, Facebook is not necessarily all bad. Ultimately the damage social websites do to empathy is up to the personal philosophy of the participant. Are they the sort of person who soaks up all the attention in a physical setting, or are they the sort of person who gives that attention to others? If they are the former, the addition of Facebook to the equation, while supporting the mindset, no more creates it than exhaling in the direction the wind is blowing creates breeze. If they are of the latter mindset, the ability to keep track of friends and acquaintances in one’s own time would if anything encourage a selfless perspective. In short, Facebook can be blamed as an encourager of narcissism, but not a progenitor of it. Zooming out, perhaps the real lesson is not how much technology can be blamed for lack of empathy, but how much it can’t be blamed. It may contribute, but, like empathy itself, it is ultimately a tool. It is up to we humans to use that tool responsibly.
A third way our society, indeed, the world in general may discourage empathy is in encouraging cynicism. Cynicism is, simply put, the opposite of idealism. A cynic is what is created when an idealist, imagining a perfect world, is disappointed so many times by the harshness of reality that they lose their ability to expect anything different. While narcissism directly opposes empathy, cynicism takes the scenic route, not so much affecting empathy outright as creating an environment in which empathy has difficulty surviving. A cynic, for instance, is marked by an inherent mistrust of other people, a belief that you and only you will be looking out for you at any given time (Kanter and Mirvis 2). This inability to trust that others will consider you in their plans makes it much easier to justify not considering them in your plans, in short discouraging empathy.
American society encourages cynicism in so many ways it’s difficult to narrow them down to a choice few. Ultimately this leads back to the world of advertising and then zooms out to the world of business as a whole. America is a capitalistic society, meaning a society whose economy thrives on competitive businesses. This in turn means a competitive attitude will get you farther in that economy than a non-competitive attitude: an attitude that says “me first” as opposed to “you first”. This attitude has arguably oversaturated our economy, turning it into a place wherein everyone is so concerned with their own welfare they not only ignore the welfare of others, but, just as in the self-esteem issue, the long-term consequences to said economy itself. Cynical companies tolerate lower standards of product, because making a quick dollar today is apparently more important than the people who will associate one’s brand name with corner-cutting tomorrow (Kanter and Mirvis 4). The company then gets less business because the customers don’t trust them, and compensates for this lack of money the best way they know how: by cutting more corners. This is a vicious cycle, threatening to continue indefinitely unless the company realizes the truth of the problem: they need to take the customer’s viewpoint into account.
So empathy is a good thing, and yet it is resisted, be it by simple misunderstanding, disproportionate self-interest, or well-meaning improvement attempts by a society that doesn’t quite know what it’s doing. The logical, or at least typical response to fixing this issue might be to progress with all haste towards teaching empathy in school settings, but consider the self-esteem movement from earlier. In pushing so hard towards an apparently beneficial character trait, without regard for the long-term effects, that movement in the end only created more problems. We cannot do the same thing with empathy. If we are to properly teach it to the masses, we must first ensure we understand how. Specialized curriculums have already been created to that end, curriculums such as PEACE, that work towards teaching students social skills like the (Salmon). Such curriculums are not as wide-spread as, say, the self-esteem boosters of the 1960s, but perhaps this is a good thing. Besides, the typical individual need not take a course in the subject to learn empathy. Children demonstrate empathy from their earliest years, losing it only later in life (Goleman). Empathy is not something people learn, it is something people unlearn, a process to which the factors listed above all to varying degrees contribute. To explain how to avoid something like narcissistic behavior would be the work of a whole other essay, and even then would barely scratch the surface. In conclusion, the best way forward at this point seems to be simple willingness to listen and learn. To understand that, in the face of narcissism, the world is vast, and not everything need be about oneself. To understand that technology is not necessarily to blame for our troubles, but is simply a tool: one we are responsible our interactions with. To understand that, in the face of cynical system, one must retain an idealistic perspective or risk feeding that system all the more.