Friday, May 6, 2011

Failure of Empathy

Why would a college student secretly film his roommate having sex and post it on the internet? What was he thinking? He clearly was not concerned about the painful humiliation the roommate would experience—or he simply didn’t care. The outcome of his lack of empathy was a talented young man jumping to his death from a bridge. Why is it that people feel free to spew any kind of bile on the internet or Facebook? Do they imagine the disembodied other at the receiving end of their vituperation cannot be wounded—or do they simply not care? Why do people shrug their shoulders at environmental degradation, warnings of the effects of global warming or the growing misery of the declining middle class and the wretched poor? Are they genuinely unconcerned about the legacy they are leaving their children and grandchildren? Or are they motivated by their own comfort and pleasure above all? What is happening to us? Are we losing our capacity to identify with the other or to make any sacrifice for the common good? Are we growing so narcissistic, so inhumane, that we seek political and philosophical reasons to pander to our own petty indulgences?

I refuse to believe, for example, that anyone seriously believes the lunatic, ultra-individualistic, anti-democratic, self-indulgent “philosophy” of Ayn Rand. If her philosophy was actually followed there would be no human society. We would be reduced once again to what Rene Girard called “a war of all against all.” Only the most powerful, most vicious, least morally inhibited would prevail and that by brute force. Her vision approximates the world of Lord of the Flies. No. I can’t believe anyone takes her seriously. Her brash narcissism is touted up as a coherent vision of society and used by the greedy and powerful to justify what they were going to do anyway. It is an excuse for the powerful to keep the powerless in tow, for the already obscenely wealthy to become even more wealthy, and for adolescent fantasists to dream of life without moral limits.

What has happened to us? According to new studies by the University of Michigan this diminishment of empathy is not an illusion. Between 1979 and 2009 research on university students showed a significant decline in empathy. The studies of Sara Konrath, cited in the May-June issue of the Utne Reader, demonstrated that between those years “empathy plummeted.” The “greatest drop” was in “empathetic concern”—48%. “The second highest drop,” reports Konrath “was in “perspective taking, a measure of people’s innate tendency to imagine others’ point of view.” This fell 34%.

This speaks not only to the failure of society, but to the failure of the church. Are we helping members of Christian congregations to empathize with the struggles of others or are we rather enabling their narcissism by appealing to their already deeply ingrained consumerism and individualism? If we cannot address this in the church we will have difficulty addressing the growing viciousness of our indifference to and scorn for others in the wider society. The horrors of Ayn Rand’s vision may yet be realized.