An American Lack of Empathy

Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading a lot of “econ/psych” books lately – books such as Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann and The Honest Truth about Dishonesty by Dan Ariely, that talk about how people act depending on the circumstances, how easily we deceive ourselves and/or rationalize our behavior, etc. – but I’m noticing a severe lack of empathy lately.

Okay, it’s not really just lately, it’s been going on forever.  Still, it’s a problem that so many people are unable to move beyond their own personal experience and realize that things might actually be different for others.  Empathy can be described as “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” and there is far too little effort at doing it.

Some examples:

White Males Saying Racism is Dead

It seems a lot of white male pundits are criticizing President Obama’s comments on the Trayvon Martin case by stating that racism is dead.  Some are arguing that the President’s comments are just another attempt to tear the country apart.  Others are asking how we could even have a Black president if we still have racism.

The reality is that we ALL have some sort of bias and racism – denying it doesn’t make it go away.  What DOES help?  Empathy.  Even if you think that it’s “wrong” for young Black men to feel like they are singled out, can’t you imagine what it feels like to think you’re a target all the time?  (And, by the way, there is lots of evidence to justify this feeling among Black youth.)

As a white woman, I was particularly struck by a recent political cartoon (which I can’t embed here due to copyright laws so please click this link and scroll to the 15th cartoon on the list – it’s the one that shows a Black George Zimmerman and a White Trayvon Martin with the simple caption “What If…?”).

I think this cartoon resonated with me because, despite my best efforts not to be racist, I DID recognize that I would feel differently about the Martin case if the shooter were Black and the victim were White.  Though I honestly don’t know what Zimmerman’s motivation was – and I believe in our system of justice so I have to accept the jury’s verdict here – I know my feelings about Zimmerman’s guilt would have been less ambiguous had he been Black.  I’m willing to bet that MANY White readers, and probably quite a few Black ones too, had a similar reaction (if they are willing to be honest about it).  I’m not proud of it and I wish it weren’t true, but I can’t change the fact that I had this reaction when I saw the cartoon.

What I CAN do is to recognize these feelings and do my best to fight against them.  I can understand that Americans are still very conflicted about race and that it’s most definitely possible for individuals to vote for a Black president and still feel uneasy when a young Black man approaches them at night.  I can try to understand what it feels like to be treated with suspicion wherever I go.

Liberals and Conservatives Demonizing Each Other

 Or find it at a local bookseller!

I heard about a book recently (I haven’t read it yet) called You’re Not As Crazy As I Thought by Phil Neisser (a self-described “left-wing atheist”) and Jacob Hess (a social conservative).  The cover blurb says

Americans have been divided along political lines for so long that they have nearly forgotten how to talk to one another, much less how to listen. This is not likely to improve as long as differences between them continue to be cast in overly simplistic terms, such as “ignorance” vs. “enlightened awareness” or “morality” vs. “reprobate immorality.” Such dichotomies ignore the fact that many citizens who disagree politically nonetheless share a desire to work for the larger good of society.

In short, no matter what side of the political chasm you live on, it would be helpful to try to understand where the other side is coming from – that is, to practice a little empathy.  (I would also argue that trying to occupy a middle ground – to find balance – would also help.)

I admit this is NOT an easy task.  Like most of us, I get very frustrated when I try to understand those with very different views.  Still, I think the effort is worth it and I’ll keep trying.  (I’m going to read Neisser & Hess’s book as inspiration.)

People Who Don’t Need Assistance Assuming No One “Really” Does

A friend recently told me she was frustrated that her father couldn’t understand why people need food stamps, welfare, or any other type of assistance.  His reasoning was that “I never needed it and neither did any of my friends, so I don’t see why it’s necessary.”  Not stated, but usually underlying statements of this type is the belief that people who use assistance are just lazy freeloaders who could take care of themselves if only they tried.

It’s just so hard for people who haven’t been in that situation to believe that a series of unlucky breaks can and does happen to “good” (i.e., hard-working) people, making it impossible for them to support themselves.  As I’ve posted before, the amount of money provided by welfare and food stamps is so small that very few people would choose to live on assistance if they had other options.

Again, it’s a lack of empathy: the “us” and “them” attitudes that allow us to believe that “those people” are so different from ourselves – “we” can’t imagine ever being in a situation where we would need that kind of help so we vilify those who are.

A similar lack of empathy was demonstrated by Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential campaign when he said

We’ve always encouraged young people — take a shot, go for it, take a risk and get the education, borrow money if you have to from your parents, start a business.

More people are outraged by comments like Romney’s than by one like that of my friend’s father because more of us can relate to the “them” side in the Romney case.  Romney couldn’t imagine a situation in which a young person’s parents wouldn’t have the money to lend their children to help them go to college or start a business.  But a large percentage of Americans CAN relate to such families – we have more empathy because it’s easier to see ourselves in the same situation.

Straight People Believing That Being Gay is a Choice

When a straight person argues that being gay is a “choice,” my fellow blogger Corman asks them, “So…when did you decide to be straight?”

I’ve always loved this response – but I suspect that the people to whom it’s directed often don’t get it…

During the intense focus on gay marriage surrounding recent Supreme Court decisions, I often read comments like “homosexuality is wrong because it goes against nature.”  Well…no, it doesn’t.  Many people actually ARE gay (and homosexual behavior is also observed in many parts of the animal world) so it doesn’t make sense to argue it’s unnatural.

Think about it this way: Why would people “choose” to be gay given the extreme prejudice and even physical danger that has threatened homosexuals in so many cultures throughout time?  Why have so many gay people resorted to suicide rather than be “found out” by friends and family?  It’s obviously not a choice for most gays.

When I was in grad school, a well-known economist had a sex-change operation.  It was the talk of the department (even though he – soon to be she – was at a different university).  My first thought was: “Wow, this must have been a truly compelling need – the economist gave up her family and risked her prestigious career to become female.  Why would she do that unless she really, really needed to be her ‘true self’?”  As an economist, she knew the costs were very high but she must have felt the benefits to be even greater.  (I’m proud to say, she managed to retain the high regard of the economic community – economists do get it right once in a while.)

People who aren’t gay and don’t know anyone who is (or, more accurately, don’t know that they know anyone who is) often have a hard time imagining that anyone could have a different orientation than their own.  But once they learn a friend or relative is gay, they often see things differently – perhaps because it’s just a little less difficult to see the world from a different point of view when someone you know and care about sees it that way.

I could keep going but I’m sure you get the point by now.  It’s very hard in many ways, but we all need to learn to accept the fact that others are different from ourselves – not better, not worse, just different.  This not-so-simple task would go a long way toward solving many of the problems we face today.  Please note that I’m NOT arguing that we should all agree with others’ points of view – just that we must work harder to understand them.  It will be hard work, but well worth it.


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Thinking Fast and Slow coverhonest truth about dishonesty bookcover