This story is the first place prize-winner of the Vocal “Lifelong Learning” challenge and was originally published there (18.06.20).
When I take a look around me today, one thing has become abundantly clear: We are living through an age of antipathy. Whether it’s lockdown protestors that would have the ‘old and weak’ sacrificed for the right to get a haircut, the people yelling ‘All Lives Matter’ – not as a statement of solidarity or support but rather as a rebuttal to demean and dismiss the Black Lives Movement, or the parent that refuses to vaccinate their kids and thus endangers the rest of the kids amongst them for otherwise cured diseases, a vulgar pattern of exceptional egocentrism appears.
I want to make it clear that when I talk about the lack of empathy in our society, it isn’t to say that it hasn’t always been that way – it absolutely has. The ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality is tribal instinct. And looking at recent world occurrences – in particular, the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests against police brutality – a lot of plasters have been ripped off to reveal some nasty and infected wounds that have yet to heal.
US versus THEM
Just over a month ago, Umair Haque published this excellent article on the rise of egocentrism in America: How Freedom Turned Sociopathic in America.
In the article, Haque discusses the damage of the self-serving notion that my freedom to do whatever the hell I want comes before everything else, even if hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake.
“Sociopathic: hostile to the idea, the notion, the purpose, of society. Not just “their” society or “mine” or “yours” — but the great and historic ideal of society itself. Sociopathy to the point that nations like Britain and America were simply unable to lock down in time, to protect society’s most vulnerable. Sociopathy to the point that Americans sunbathe on beaches while the death rate is the equivalent of a 9/11 every day. ”– Umair Haque, ‘How Freedom Turned Sociopathic in America’.
Society and empathy – bear in mind, is not the same as sympathy or agreement, but merely the idea of being able to (or even attempting to) understand somebody’s perspective and emotions concerning a situation – is evaporating.
Division across the aisle – politically and otherwise – is at an all-time high. Even within usually tightly knitted communities, people are walking on eggshells. Because if you just slip or trip ever so slightly, you will be sentenced to guilty beyond a reasonable doubt before you have even set foot in a courtroom.
The Effects of Social Media
Picture Courtesy of The Scholarly Kitchen
In a meta-analysis study around empathy amongst American college students administered between 1979 and 2009, it was discovered that empathy levels had dropped by 40%. The researchers largely attributed this to the rise of social media. Now, that was in 2009. Not only has cancel culture exploded since then, but so has compassion fatigue and confirmation bias.
Compassion fatigue is the result of 1. being so constantly overwhelmed with tragedies that you end up becoming desensitized to it and stop to recognizing it as anything more than another headline or hashtag. Or 2., you – to protect your mental health and wellbeing – emotionally distance yourself from the matter and your minds start to objectify and dehumanize it to the point of antipathy.
Confirmation bias is something that the vast majority of people probably take part in, online and offline. This is when you constantly surround yourself with people who have the same exact mindset and opinions as you:
“their [conservatives and liberals] own thoughts repeated in recursive echo chambers of increasingly radical and exclusionary thought”– P.J. Manney for Live Science, “Is Technology Ruining Empathy?”
This type of environment brings us back to the US vs. THEM mentality. You are able to empathize heavily with your own group but once introduced to a different group that your group has consistently othered and demonized, your ability to empathize with them before they have opened their mouth has severely, if not entirely, decreased.
Extremism like this is, of course, directly linked to cancel culture as well. There is no such thing as a conversation; there are only hostile debates between people who aren’t even listening to what the other person is arguing. It is the epitome of prejudice; a preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.
And I don’t want to hear about how cancel-culture isn’t real. People have literally taken their own lives because they were attacked by a mob of people determined to hunt them off of the surface of the planet. We tend to forget that these are very, very, very real people, and not just icons and avatars. Words matter. Words kill. – Rest in peace, Caroline Flack.
Luckily, there are some people who do try to create conversations across and within the aisle. Jubilee is a YouTube channel that strives to deconstruct prejudicial ideas by embracing empathy. With series such as Middle Ground where they bring together two oppositional groups to talk about their stances and try to find a middle ground, Spectrum where they bring in a group of people of the same community to see how much they think alike on different issues, and Odd Man Out where amongst a group of people of a certain community is an imposter, their videos are always food for thought.
Recently, they also started a podcast called ‘Radical Empathy’, where host John Regalado sits down with people from all walks of life, determined to find a common thread despite the distance.
From flat earthers to ex-cult members, pornstars and BLM protesters, even a gay man that believes in conversion therapy, these episodes are raw, uncensored, and honestly, challenging to listen to at first.
We are so wrapped up in our own opinions and ideas that to just sit down and listen to someone explain themselves is … well, it just really isn’t a thing, is it? Immediately, we want to confront them and prove them wrong. Even though we have no idea where they are coming from or the nuances of their personal ideology.
But Radical Empathy has opened my eyes and ears. The need for hostile confrontation has eased, and my curiosity has instead peaked. I encourage you to give it try. At first, you might think that it’s total bullshit. That they shouldn’t be giving a platform to someone with such outlandish or provocative beliefs. But that isn’t what this is about.
Studies after studies on the concept of nature versus nurture continue to show us that it isn’t what is preconceived within us that is the epitome of humanity, but our ability to change, adapt and grow.
Embracing radical empathy in an age of antipathy is not easy. But focusing on rehabilitation, growth, and education, rather than shame, punishment, and isolation, is the solution.