Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Empathy Deficit

Empathy is an undervalued talent. Empathy is the ability to sympathize, understand and/or feel someone else’s emotional or mental state. It is fundamental to being able to interact with other people. In a way it is more important for interacting with complete strangers than people you are close with. In time you build an emotional bond with people you know, even casually, and are constrained by basic etiquette to be sensitive to their feelings.

I’m having a hard time expressing my key idea here, so I’m just going to go straight to the point. I am concerned that changes in culture and technology has eroded our sense of empathy and made us a colder, harsher society.

I work as a teacher at a private tutoring company. I often speak to my students about their lives at school. Lately my students have shared with me a stream of stories about violence in their schools that they have seen, or their friends have experienced. Despite the latest push against bullying it appears violence and intimidation is alive in well in the educational system. I was not particularly disturbed by my students’ accounts, but by their reaction to some of it. More than one admitted to acting as a by-stander. One in particular recounted the fight with glee and described how exciting it was.

I challenged each of my students on their position as bystanders, and their relationship to the violence around them. I don’t think my group of students are particularly sociopathic, but I do feel they are representative. I challenged their empathy; I asked them about the victims. None of them reported these assaults. One grade nine student said that he had a friend who called a teacher during a fight and the attackers beat him up the next week: “snitching” as it’s called. The culture of prisons is present in our school. This isn’t a new development of course. There were the same pressures while I was at high school, but my students are younger, in middle school or elementary school.

I may have led a sheltered life, perhaps more innocent and less violent than the average, but it seems to me that the culture is changing. Violence is more accepted and victims are dismissed, if they are thought about at all.

People are no longer fellow human beings to many; instead they are merely interactive objects, or static things. I have discussed this before but as we have become digitally connected we have cut the links for face-to-face interaction. We live inside our screens and behind our earphones; we consciously ignore those around us and would prefer if they did not exist. Riding on public transit very few ever talk to their neighbours, they are engrossed in their own little worlds.

It is not just a casual relationship with violence that made me concerned with our collective empathy. I have been considering our society’s relationships with gender and sexuality. I believe the lack of empathy has led to a greater push towards the objectification of both genders. My rationalization is that if we do not think about the person behind the body then they merely exist as an object. A friend and I were recently out to dinner at a large chain restaurant. I began a conversation with him about the shift in service staff in restaurants over the last few years. Around us were servers, all female, all under thirty, all wearing form-fitting clothing, all thin, and, at least in our opinion, all were pretty. This trend is more or less shamefully exploited by restaurants.

In our conversation we debated the merits and motivation of this move, and we tried to understand how the employees felt about it. We admitted we couldn’t be sure, but that to my mind it would feel degrading. A manager measuring my skirt to make sure it is short enough (not too short, short enough) would be offensive to me. I will not presume to speak for these young women. However, as a heterosexual man I found it degrading personally. The marketing mindset that says if sexually appealing women are presented to me I’m more likely to eat at the restaurant, buy more and tip higher disgusts me. They view me as an object that is motivated by base sexual desires. I, obviously, have only scratched the surface on gender issues in society, but this is something that has been on my mind for a long while.

Do we see people behind the strangers that we meet? They are are feeling and thinking people, not merely objects for our amusement or obstacles in our own lives.

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