Over the past few weeks, I have come across several popular articles written on empathy, or more accurately the lack thereof. Have we stopped seeing humans as beings of spirit with feelings and emotions; compassion and empathy.
In her New York Times article In my Cat’s Death, a Human Comfort, Margo Rabb talks about the end-of-life scenarios, the process of death and grief and compares them between her cat, her mother, and her father who have died over the past three decades. Her cat’s illness incited a lot more understanding and compassion, and she was allowed to take her time grieving, whereas she says her experience with her parents was met with apathy.
Unbelievable, but I believe her. Suffering of pets evoke more empathy in American society than the suffering of humans.
We’ve watched in disbelief as George Zimmerman got away scot-free when he pleaded Florida’s “ Stand your Ground” law after he killed 19-year-old Treyvon Martin, who posthumously made the “Hoodie” a symbolic feature of race and the oppressed. All this, whilst Melissa Alexander, a black woman with an abusive husband was in jail. Melissa lost her case pleading the same law despite the fact that she did not kill or hurt anyone, but merely fired a warning shot to scare off her abusive husband. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison (after a mere five-minute hearing). We accept this as just the way things are.
We continue condoning NFL by way of our patronage despite its entire sub-culture of turning a blind eye to all the violations of human dignity that many of its players display. Not only do we not care that much, we actually go to an extent of thinking of victims of abuse as stupid because we actually believe that they “choose” to stay. Because we tell ourselves that domestic violence is a personal matter. Not true. It’s a crime, and perpetrators must be duly punished.
In his Op Ed for The New York Times, titled Where’s the Empathy, Nicolas Kristof talks of his high school buddy Kevin Green, who died early due to the lack of a life of opportunity and equality. He goes on to show how despite being hardworking and showing promise, the system cheated him of upward mobility, and how most Americans tend to feel disdain and shun such people who they believe are mooching off the system. We have heard this rhetoric time and again. We also do not care enough to track or investigate stories such as Kevin Green’s. Because it’s not our business. We wouldn’t know or care.
At times, I’ve felt that the lack of empathy is perhaps ingrained in our culture, in our media. An American sense of humor focuses a lot on mocking others, the way they look, or behave, or make fools of themselves. We watch TV shows and laugh hysterically at videos where others are scared, or hurting without flinching to say “ouch,” or ask oneself: what if that were one of my own, or me? We also look in horror at real videos of people being killed as if it were a movie, or fodder for conversations over drinks and dinner. We even do our part by taking videos of persons being beaten and killed like Oscar Grant was at the Fruitvale Bart station in Oakland, without stepping up to the plate as a human race to collectively stop a life from being taken away right before our eyes. Instead we post them on social media.
It may be true that inequalities tend to exist naturally, but both injustices and equalities are also created and supported by our failing systems. It is not right that we have become so accustomed to the unfeelingness. This is the empathy gap that Kristof is talking about in his post. As if it’s not our fault. As if we can’t do anything.
How strange it is that Michael Vick gets jail time for indulging in dog-fighting, and someone like Daniel Panteleo gets away scot-free for choking and killing Eric Garner? Or that Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson didn’t lead to penalties for officer Darren Wilson?
We tend to have feelings of compassion for animals in distress, and although that’s not bad in and of itself, it’s unacceptable and shameful that the same empathy and compassion does not hold true for a human life. To understand this absurdness, just imagine this scenario. Officer Panteleo is choking a labrador to death because the dog is snarling and growling. Panteleo is afraid that the dog might attack and, just to be safe, he kills the labrador with a chokehold. And all this is being filmed. The video would have been enough evidence to put Panteleo away in jail for animal abuse. Now imagine Ray Rice beat a dog to pulp in the privacy of an elevator? Loyal or not, the dog would have no say in sending him to prison. Yet Janey Palmer, Rice’s wife had a say in preventing assault charges against him. Evidently a human life does not deserve as much dignity as an animal does. Now, that’s the problem of apathy.
However, all is not lost because we do care. We’ve raised a hue and cry about all of this. There are thousands of examples where we individuals have courageously demonstrated that we care, but it’s not enough.
It may be necessary to get into someone else’s shoes and feel and live and breathe their lives, enough to evoke compassion and the feeling of empathy. Studies have shown that compassion can be developed. For example, the research done at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that adults can be trained to be more compassionate. They have found that meditation changes the maps of the brain to evoke certain feelings that lean towards being compassionate and sympathetic to others.
Researcher Helen Weng says “It’s kind of like weight training … we found that people can actually build up their compassion ‘muscle’ and respond to others’ suffering with care and a desire to help.” None of us may have all the answers but together we can all make a difference.
Manikya has worked as a journalist and tech writer for much of her adult life. She lives in the SF Bay Area with her husband, their three children and the family dog. Her personal blog is: mywriterstudio.wordpress.com