Avoiding A Post-Empathy World
We will soon have our answer to the great American question: Who will be the next American president? I logged onto Facebook after three and a half years, having sworn off the platform after the last election. The pandemic ticked up, my social interactions slowly vanished, and I too hunkered down for the year, I had to stick my face into the imaginary world.
Social media is like Toy Story. When alone, we comment and live animated lives. When people and reality enter the room, we fall lifeless to the floor. We grow braver and decide to leave the room, house, or nursery and venture out. Our avatars, when faced with the real world, chaos ensues. We are products leaving the shelves with opinions, beliefs, and ideas downloaded from other toys hoping to make sense of the world.
Where has empathy gone? The closer we get, the more divisive and reclusive people become with ultimatums of “if you support this candidate, then you support this and this and this, and if you support those things, I can’t have you in my life.” Or “if you support this group, you’re this, and I can’t have that in my life, good riddance.”
The retorts to these declarations are just as frigid. “I didn’t know you felt this way. I always liked you. But, if you’re going to judge someone for this and this, then I can’t have you in my life, so bye then.” There are a million variations on these conversations daily but they hold several things in common. And could be avoided.
There are two concepts to strongly consider: empathy and binary thinking.
We’ve lost touch with our innate ability to empathize. Politics has become anesthetic. Our beliefs numb us. They impair us from doing that utmost humane thing which is understanding our fellow humans.
Our emotions are steering, our reason is sleeping, and our anxiety is launching us into flight. We’re running away from relationships, friendships, and engagement. Both sides, shunning the other over one man. And that’s exactly what he wants. Division.
The president doesn’t help. The pseudo-fascist recanting of pillars of obtuse thought has absconded reason. Vitriolic rallying cries of a radical left are only met by those decrying an extremist right.
The pandemic doesn’t help. Our opportunities for in-person contact are limited. Mask-wearing grocery sprints are hardly the place for water cooler political talk. We live online and have insulated ourselves with the opinions of those who think most like us. We’re polarized. We’re polarizing. We’re polar.
Pandemic and politics are interchangeable like some washed-up stunt double who still looks similar under lights and make-up. They confuse and divide us. We’ve devolved into binary thinkers. This is a huge problem.
Binary Thinking: Putting things in terms of two options that are typically mutually exclusive. Examples: Yes/No Good/Bad Black/White
The president doesn’t help. It’s not entirely his fault. The left is just as much to blame. We’ve preached post-modernism, abandoned the common narrative for our own, and live in a country where we view the individual right as superior to the common good.
We have the freedom to hold onto our individual beliefs. And right now at this point in time, our beliefs are our identities. If we fold. We die internally. Enter the binary thinker.
I’m me. You’re you. I like Biden. You like Trump. Biden is good. Trump bad. Me good. You bad. But, I’ve known you for twenty years, I love you dearly but because you’re bad we cannot coexist. Because maintaining our friendship means welcoming bad into my life and I can’t do that. Right now.
The pandemic doesn’t help. As I read recently, we’re all suffering from some form of acedia.
Acedia: spiritual or mental sloth; apathy
From the Greeks, it is more of a listlessness. Anxiety from a multitude of sources culminating with this election at a time when we need contact, long for it, cannot have it and have no end in sight. We’re scared. Scared dogs bite. As do binary thinkers. It’s safe. Binary thinking is about safety. And in this time, we’re choosing personal safety, belief, and personal identity and sanity over discourse, humble inquiry, and empathy, of all kinds.
This combination of acedia and resulting safety net of binary thinking creates the finger cuffs for empathy. In the middle of this political Antarctica is a man who has reduced politics to one issue; himself. This is the last variable. The plutonium for the Delorian taking our empathy back in time. When it is all boiled down, there are people who hate him and those who fall into a multitude of categories; love, support, tolerance, and benign indifference.
However, binary thinking forces us into bucketing folks. Anyone on the right side of the aisle is dubbed as the enemy. They support Trump. Trump bad. Trumpers look at the left of the aisle and see Biden. Biden is bad. There is no seeking to understand. We have been effectively divided and pegged against one another. However, I still see us as having more in common than not. I’m choosing to look at and deploy three types of empathy.
Cognitive Empathy or Perspective-Taking
If we truly seek to understand we must actually try to understand the perspective of the other person, not necessarily the other party. Empathy is an individual effort. It’s specific. And typically, we have history with people. An equity that allows us to intentionally take a perspective as we it owe to them and to ourselves. We must inhabit them. Snoop around their life and wonder why they believe what they do.
This empathy by thought creates a place for us to exist that is not beholden to our emotional whims at this time. There is clarity. It forces us to use the universe at the top of our necks and imagine. There is effort that is required. Cognitive empathy precludes feeling.
At the end of every belief, opinion, and political thought is a person. Remember that. A human being. Who wants to keep their space in the world.
Cognitive empathy is the beginning. Just give their perspective a chance without thinking about your own. Because empathy is not about you. But, don’t let the thinking overtake the feeling. Because we make decisions based on emotions. If thoughts are a catalyst, let emotions be the enzyme.
Emotional Empathy or Feeing Their Feels
If you struggle with the perspective of someone else or the rational mind won’t turn down the interference. Recognize the emotions of the person you’re trying to understand.
This is where we can most readily align ourselves with our perceived enemies. Are they hurting? Do you hurt? Are they scared? Are you? Are they angry at the government? Are you? At the crux of a feeling is an emotion. And those emotions are accessible through a common human experience. One which we all share whether we try to divide ourselves or not.
Get dirty with the emotions of someone you oppose. Do the work. Right now, we’re just catching and throwing grenades. But, throw yourself on it, see what it feels like as it incinerates your guts. Does it bring you closer?
Compassionate Empathy is a Beautiful Place
While this may seem difficult. Compassionate empathy is the empathy that compels us to action. We feel the pain or perspective of another person and we act.
I think we can move ourselves to compassionate empathy by sequencing through cognitive and emotional in an effort to reach compassionate empathy.
I see us careening toward a post-empathy world where we have no desire to understand, think, feel, or relate to someone who is on the other side of the lightning rod. This is fundamentally inhumane as we squabble in the existential strata of politics.
In our COVID malaise, we’ve been felled by combative and conflicting narratives in an effort to keep us divided. Everyone is to blame for this. This falls on all of us. We’ve retreated toward beliefs that reinforce us, what we think of ourselves, and our dreams for this country.
Yet, we’re more polarized than ever. Soon the chasm will be so great we won’t be able to hear one another over the winds of years that have cemented us in our corners. We’re losing friends. We turning away family. We’re losing our meaty marrowy middle of our humanity; our ability to connect through empathy.
Empathy. The superpower. It requires us to look past an incredible obstacle; ourselves. We have to get over ourselves, our beliefs, our perspectives, our fears, and our hurt. We need to seek to understand. Because after this election. In some way, it will start all over again for the next four years.