A Crippling Lack of Empathy

I’ve written a lot about how frustrating American political discourse can be.  Much of it has emphasized and highlighted the lack of research or intellectual curiosity among most of the citizenry, and that’s certainly one of the major faults we have as a society.  I’d like to opine on another problem though.

Being passionate about something obviously implies having passion, which means emotion.  That emotion can be love, anger, sadness, etc.  Much of the passion I see in American political discourse is guided by some of this, and few are exempt.  Even I get bent out of shape sometimes when trying to explain the importance of the issues I hold dear, specifically healthcare costs, education, and corporate regulation.

To me, that’s a key to get people interested in politics; action will come if emotion stirs.  There’s no better way to motivate someone than to stoke a fire in someone, for whatever reason.

However, there are a number of issues that many of people don’t need any encouragement on, and most of the time it involves issues where someone is getting money that they aren’t.  It would be nice if people got more angry about corporate welfare and subsidy, but instead they get pissed about “welfare mothers” and “freeloaders”, wanting everyone to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” or whatever idiom they choose in the moment.

A common thread in all this, is the fact that many, many people simply don’t give a shit about people they can’t see.  That sounds insanely reductive, but I don’t think it’s inaccurate.

I couldn’t find the exact quote, but Henry Rollins said something meaningful years ago after he returned from a long philanthropic trip to Africa.  It was along the lines of this: We (as in Americans) are all insanely lucky to not just avoid the conditions in Africa, but also to not even have to see it.  A very poignant point, but it’s part of the problem.  We as a culture have chosen to ignore the plight of those we can’t see, and it’s been endorsed and raised high.

Almost all of us use smartphones made overseas in warehouses that need to have suicide nets because the working conditions are so poor.

Most of us wear cheap clothes that are only cheap because someone we can’t see made them for a matter of cents per hour.

Our government has participated in a number of imperialist endeavors across the globe, motivated by the continued goal of achieving business-friendly (re: American business) situations in countries ripe for exploit.  Millions have died because of these endeavors.

We don’t care.

This crippling lack of empathy permeates to within our own borders, as well.  When people don’t give a shit about welfare recipients, they’re less likely to understand (and care to understand) how people get on welfare, and they likely don’t know anyone on it either.  It’s easy to say “build a wall” when you aren’t even in the states where the wall is going up.  It’s simple to be ignorant of minority struggle when you don’t know anyone that’s a minority and don’t understand the history or culture.

We as a country continue to be blind to our own atrocities.  The plunder of African-Americans is largely misunderstood or unknown to most.  The causes and effects of our “immigration problem” are not even considered when we think about wall-building.  Our continued subjugation of resource-rich countries through trade or force is wrapped in a “spreading freedom” ribbon, while we ask our young adults to pledge their life for it.

And I feel much of it is rooted in the fact that on the whole, we simply don’t give a shit.  Out of sight, out of mind, out of conscience.

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2 thoughts on “A Crippling Lack of Empathy

  1. I think of empathy as a resource. You only have so much to give. People lately have been connected to the internet and been able to hear stories from all across the globe. Stories about terrible working conditions, brutal dictators, political corruption and so on. I think we all care about these things up until we don’t have enough left in us to care. It’s like we’re spread too thin. Like we don’t have enough time and energy to empathize and fact check every single story, so we just give up. It’s like having to clean a really messy house. Logically you could work at it in small increments and it wouldn’t be so bad, but the whole task seems so daunting you don’t even try. Instead you just give up and pretend it isn’t a problem. I think people’s empathy is a lot like that. Empathy on the internet manifests itself into everyone jumping on one hot issue for a week and not caring about anything else because there’s not enough time to care about anything else. Then once the story has gotten old and stale we forget about it because there’s not enough time for follow up. There’s always that next hot story to follow instead. This week it’s Prince’s death. Next week who knows?

    I hope I made some sense.

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