April 11, 2015 / 2014 / December / On the loss of empathy

On the loss of empathy

submitted December 08, 2014 by Matthew Ellis   |   comments
<h1>On the loss of empathy</h1>

I've had many thoughts about the protests in Ferguson and throughout the country in response to the deaths of unarmed African-Americans. As you know, Episcopal Health Ministries has been active in promoting responses to violence; we agree with those who see violence as a public health issue.

This is surely not the only comment I'll have on these events, but I wanted to start with a look at what I think might be an underlying cause, as well as a possible long-term solution to these issues: Empathy (or the lack thereof). 


I must admit I've really become discouraged by the tone of the dialogue in our country in recent years. Politics is perhaps the most obvious indicator, but it's not the only one. Many causes are cited for this decline in our nation's discourse on all subjects, but I think the anger and distrustful atmosphere in every arena can be boiled down to one thing: the loss of empathy.

em·pa·thy
ˈempəTHē/
noun: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

For many, our communities are increasingly segregated, not just by race, but by income and politics as well. [See this Pew Research study on Political Polarization & Media Habits.] This is destroying our ability to identify with those different from us. The more we isolate ourselves from differing viewpoints, the less we are able to empathize with those in different situations.

A lack of contact with people different from us makes us fearful of 'the other'. It causes us to withdraw, to question motives, to assume the worst and to judge others harshly in order to better protect ourselves.


I was speaking with friends who live in Carmel, a suburb of Indianapolis. I was talking about the importance to me of living in a diverse neighborhood with people from all backgrounds. I mentioned that earlier in the afternoon, my wife and I were sitting outside when a car sputtered to a stop in front of our house.

The young woman had a child in the car, but simply sat there. I approached her to see what was wrong. She had run out of gas and had called someone to bring her some. I offered her some of the gas we had for our lawnmower. She tried to give me money. She seemed grateful for my gesture, although I felt it took almost nothing for me to help her.

I mentioned that this experience reminds me that many people struggle, that many people have difficulty with the things I take for granted. I find this an important way to ground myself and to be reminded of others' perspectives.

My friend from Carmel said "Did she have an iPhone? I'll bet she did. Those people always have one."


Unfortunately, our media has discovered that stoking these fears is the single most reliable way to ensure ratings and so they do it relentlessly. Entire industries have sprung up devoted entirely to achieving political goals through fear and intimidation, facts be damned.

These websites, 'media' sources, email chains and more are poisoning us. I get so frustrated; not with opposing political views, but with political views and opinions that are simply not based in fact. For instance, I'm already seeing that old nugget about President Obama hating Christmas trees popping up in social media, usually accompanied by a comment about 'the king' or 'this is so true!'  The fact that it's not true is seemingly irrelevant. It confirms the view of that reader, so it must be true.

Furthermore, many of the people who try the hardest to pass along this kind of information to others are the least interested in truth. They discount anything that contradicts their worldview as false propaganda, regardless of the source. This is destroying critical thought in our nation.

I find that most of the people that buy into propaganda from either the far right or far left are rarely willing to confront evidence their position is factually incorrect. However, I'll be honest, I'm rarely besieged by my friends on the left with websites equivalent to Townhall.com; I say this because my friends on the right seem far more aggressive in passing along indefensible material and in believing the destruction of America is imminent.

I recall an instance claiming that President Obama's policies were harmful to the lives of poor people. The only problem: the data for the underlying survey was collected in January 2009. Maybe his policies are harmful; however, if you argue that point using false or misrepresented data, your argument is invalid.

These are not cases of agreeing to disagree or allowing everyone to have their own opinions. These are arguments based on factually incorrect statements. Combine these falsehoods with hateful, vile rhetoric and an intense belief that the 'other side' wants to destroy America and it's no wonder civil conversations are rare.

The shared goal for all of these groups is to destroy empathy in their supporters and to create false narratives for others who might be easily persuaded (particularly those who get their news from a single source or viewpoint).

Why is this goal of destroying empathy important for these groups?

If we have empathy for another individual or group, it fundamentally changes our response to that person or group. If that happens, EVERYTHING changes and these groups lose their power to affect the conversation.

Do you have the strength and curiosity to ask what it might feel like to walk in another person's shoes? This is a serious question. To truly empathize with another person, we must be willing to attempt to share their perspective in whatever limited way is available to us. To do this honestly and with pure intentions without imposing our judgment is a difficult thing to do. Not many are capable or even willing to try.

For instance, let's look at the events in Ferguson, MO and consider some questions.

Imagine you are a person of another race than your own:

  1. How might it feel to be a person of color and see report after report of unarmed men, women and children shot and killed by the very people sworn to protect them? Would that inspire confidence? Rage? Fear?

  2. How would centuries of slavery, racism, prejudice, and oppression impact these feelings? Would you be willing to trust the institutions that had propagated these systems of oppression for so long? Would you be willing to trust the individuals who had pledged to distribute justice fairly but failed repeatedly?

  3. How might it feel to be white and observing these events? What would your emotions be? Who would you identify with in the situation?

If you are a civilian:

  1. How would it feel to be a police officer caught up in the chaos of these emotions? How would you control your own emotions?

  2. Would you fear for your own life or the lives of your fellow officers?

  3. How would you maintain control in this environment? Would that be difficult?

  4. What if you agreed with the protesters? What if you disagreed?

  5. How do your answers change if you imagine asking these questions from the perspective of a person of a different race?

If you are a bystander:

  1. How would you view those protesting these actions? Would you understand the underlying emotions?

  2. How would you express your own thoughts about the situation, regardless of whether you agreed or not?

Imagine you are a businessman in the area:

  1. How would you feel about these protests?

  2. What if you agreed with the protesters?

  3. What if you disagreed? How would that make a difference in your response?

The answers are not important here. The critical aspect of this process is merely to ask questions that lead you to consider a different point of view and to seriously entertain all of the possible answers from those perspectives. By engaging with these questions and being curious enough to imagine the possibilities of how someone might feel in these situations, we broaden our perspective.

In the Episcopal Church, our Baptismal Covenant calls us to "respect the dignity of every human being." Asking these questions and trying to see events from another's perspective is one of the most fundamental ways we can do this.

So how can we build up empathy for others?

I think it's fairly simple in terms of a plan but I think the plan is actually difficult to execute.

Step 1: Place a strict filter on your media sources.

Garbage in, garbage out. Anything that is routinely expressed in hyper-partisan or extremely negative terms should be removed from your regular reading. Any source that regularly promotes material not based in actual fact (check them from time to time) should be disregarded.

Step 2: Be curious.

Ask yourself what the lives of others might be like. Try often to imagine other perspectives. Read books from authors and genres you are unfamiliar with, especially those with a strong narrative voice. Find someone you disagree with and then try to convince yourself of their position. Read differing respected (and respectful) opinions on the same subject.

Step 3. Engage with others different from you.

Place yourself in positions where you interact with people you normally would not. Seek out a conversation with someone you don't know and who seems to have a different background than you. Learn about their life experiences and how that impacts their thoughts and behavior now. Try to put yourself in their shoes.

I'm convinced that if we find a way to empathize with each other, to respect the dignity of every human being, we will find solutions to our problems fairly quickly. As I mentioned above, this is far easier said than done. For too long, we have allowed politicians to set the tone and we have followed their lead. This has led to divisive, hateful rhetoric where the dignity of those who disagree with us is not respected, in any sense of the word.

We can change that for ourselves and each other. Try to increase your feelings of empathy for those around you and different from you. It might make all the difference in the world.


Matthew Ellis is the CEO of Episcopal Health Ministries.