Elbows together; hearts apart: closing the empathy gap

A University of Michigan Study suggests that the college students of today are 40 percent less empathetic than students twenty or thirty years ago.  Sarah Konrath, one of the researchers involved in the study, blames technology: “The increase in exposure to media during this time period could be one factor,” she says.  “Compared to 30 years ago, the average American now is exposed to three times as much non-work-related information. In terms of media content, this generation of college students grew up with video games, and a growing body of research, including work done by my colleagues at Michigan, is establishing that exposure to violent media numbs people to the pain of others.”

Edward O’Brien, another researcher associated with the study, feels that social networking technology is part of the problem.  “The ease of having ‘friends’ online might make people more likely to just tune out when they don’t feel like responding to others’ problems, a behavior that could carry over offline. College students today may be so busy worrying about themselves and their own issues that they don’t have time to spend empathizing with others, or at least perceive such time to be limited.”

Could be.  But I am inclined to see the empathy gap as an indication that the Reagan Revolution has been far more successful than anyone imagined.  Since 1980, the dominant political message has branded empathy as futile, weak and counterproductive.  There is no sense trying to help people, we are told, it just makes them dependent and pathetic.  This being the case, the best strategy is to pursue naked self interest, leave the less fortunate to suffer the consequences of their laziness, and this will become the best of all possible worlds.

That message, praise God, wasn’t much of a factor when I was a kid.  Inspired by the non-violent direct action unleashed by the civil rights movement, thousands of young people, black and white, decended on the Southern states to work for integration and black voter registration.  Between 1961 and 1964, empathy reigned in America. 

The first wave of civil rights leaders were inspired by a vision they called “the beloved community.”  A 1974 article in the Christian Century argued that Martin Luther King was pushing for integration, not desegregation: 

Desegregation [King said] will only produce “a society where men are physically desegregated and spiritually segregated, where elbows are together and hearts apart. It gives us social togetherness and spiritual apartness. It leaves us with a stagnant equality of sameness rather than a constructive equality of oneness.” But integration will bring in an entirely different kind of society whose character is best summed up in the phrase “Black and White Together” — the title of one of the chapters of Why We Can’t Wait and the theme of one stanza of the civil rights movement’s hymn “We Shall Overcome.” Integration will enlarge “the concept of brotherhood to a vision of total interrelatedness.”

Who is holding up a vision of the beloved community in today’s America?  No one in the media spotlight, that’s for sure.  

When President Obama suggested that empathy was a desirable quality in a Supreme Court nominee he was roundly criticized.   Wendy Long, legal counsel to the Judicial Confirmation Network who once clerked for Clarence Thomas, spoke for many when she said that Obama “thinks judges should have empathy for certain litigants who come before them. Of course if you have empathy for everybody who comes before you, there are two sides to every case. If you have empathy for both sides then that’s the same as having no empathy at all. So what he means is he wants empathy for one side and what’s wrong with that is it is being partial instead of being impartial. A judge is supposed to have empathy for no one but simply to follow the law.”

Why is having empathy for both sides the same as having no empathy at all?  Universal empathy was the heart and soul of the beloved community King and others pursued.  The Wendy Long’s of this world believe that compassion begins and ends with the family and the clan.  In the early 1960s, America was still deciding if the enormous military and geographical reach fashioned out of World War II necessity would be dismanteled or sustained.  The decision to get serious in Vietnam was a resounding vote for imperial hegemony. 

Empathy and empire are antithetical.

You can see the new reality in the courtroom.  If the defendant is poor and black he is guilty.  No evidence is required.  To weigh the evidence fairly is itself an exercise in empathy and we have lost the capacity for that kind of thing.  Most Americans have lost the capacity to give a damn about marginalized people.  People of color who make it out of the hood rarely look back.  To enter Middle America, it seems, we must check our hearts at the door.

Can we rekindle the beloved-community-fire in our day?  Yes, but only if we set aside the coarse, unlovely assumptions of a cynical society.  We have lost far more than we realize.   Small, intentional counter cultures must be created virtually from scratch.