The End of Empathy, pt.1

(Unnecessarily dramatic title brought to you by the allure of alliteration.)

invisibiliaInvisibilia is one of my favorite podcasts. Given, I only listen to half a dozen podcasts, but that’s because I’m picky, dammit. They recently did an episode on empathy, that left me with at least as many questions as answers, which is, in my view, doing things right.

Before I get into this, I’d like to try and distinguish between empathy and compassion (something the Invisibilia ladies did not do). You can disagree with my conclusions, but good luck trying to find definitive definitions. I’ve read half a dozen interpretations online and no two of them agreed. Even my trusty Shorter Oxford dictionary couldn’t help, for the simple reason that English just doubled up on the term by pulling it from two different languages. Empathy is Greek; Compassion is Latin. As much as I’d like to believe that every word in our ridiculously large lexicon is unique and necessary, it’s simply not true.

But I do think there is an important distinction in the definitions applied to the two words. When they are distinguished, one is taken to mean something like co-feeling: actually experiencing the pain, etc. of another. This is also referred to as Affective Empathy. The other is more like relating to, or understanding, or being able to identify with another. That’s called Cognitive Empathy, but I’m going to refer to it as Compassion, because that’s the word typically used in (metta) meditation, and I’ll use Empathy as co-feeling (except where I’m forced to do otherwise by the language of my sources). Compassion seems to have a level of useful detachment to it, which also aligns with Buddhism; whereas empathy gets you deep in the shit.

You may have heard that empathy is on the downslide in our youth. This conclusion is mostly based on self-assessments that have been administered to college students methodically over the past 50 years, with some cohort-wide behavioral changes tossed in for validation. Most of the guesses as to the why of it all have to do with decreased personal interaction with others due to technology, highly competitive schools and sports, and an emphasis on “success.” I’m interested in why it’s there, but more in our capacity to right the course going forward. And that ties nicely into the “punching a Nazi” culture that has compelled and repulsed me ever since Trump got elected.

The Invisibilia episode hinges on a clash of values – those of host Hanna Rosen, and producer/job applicant Lina Misitzis. Hanna fully admits that her goal, the show’s goal, is to help listeners feel empathy (either definition) for people who they might typically write off. When Lina asked her “Why?” I was stunned, but impressed. To me, compassion is an inherent good. Compassion increases connection and decreases conflict and isolation. It’s what we should be aiming for as a species. The most horrifying thing about terroristic acts is not what they do, it’s that they do not care about the people they perform these acts upon. Religious extremists are terrifying in their absolute assurance that they are correct, and that others are not worth correcting or worth giving a shit about.

(I was impressed with the Why because I think questioning any assumptions is a wise move.) Anyway, Lina’s position is that empathy is not healthy because humanizing people you are opposed to weakens your resolve to fight them. She said she had listened to an interview with the guy who organized the racist Charlotte rally, an interview that let him express himself like a regular person, and it started “fucking with my conviction.” I guess it’s natural that this worried her, but it ties into a couple things that I’ve heard a lot the last few years, and that I disagree with.

First, that anger is a great motivator, or that it is necessary to fuel action.

Second, Don’t Know Thy Enemy.

Third, Compassion is a limited resource.

To be continued soon. Sorry for the delay on this one, dear reader/s.