Social media and the lack of empathy
January 20, 2014
I will be the first to admit it — I love my smartphone. I text occasionally, and I love being able to "google" and find out, say, what the geologic age of the Grand Canyon is or how to convert kilometers into miles.
But I have worries. And I found that my concerns are being echoed by psychologists, social scientists and popular culture commentators.
What I worry about is an increasing absence of empathy in every aspect of society. How can we learn to put ourselves into another person's shoes if we have never walked in them? According to an article by Brian Jung of Demand Media on "The Negative Effect of Social Media on Society and Individuals," social media can make it more difficult for us to distinguish between the meaningful relationships we have in the real world and the numerous casual connections formed through LinkedIn or Twitter.
Our most important affiliations weaken. No intimate connection, no empathy.
Cyber-bullying is one result, says Jung, with 42 percent of youth reporting they have been victims, according to a 2010 CBS News Report. Ordinary filters normally used in communication are absent, and children are scarred; or as in the case of the Rutgers freshman Dharun Ravi, who posted a live feed of his roommate's sex life causing that roommate to kill himself, dead. Ravi probably never would have physically harassed his roommate in person. But how can you have empathy when the focus of your hurtful action is not real to you?
In a 2010 article by Dr. Alex Lickerman in "Happiness in this World," Lickerman touches on the subject of isolation caused by addiction to the Internet. "Like any addiction," he says, "the real cost … is to the number and quality of our relationships with others.
"The problems come when we find ourselves … mistaking our electronic relationships for physical ones … too much electronic-relating paradoxically engenders a sense of social isolation."
In Spike Jonze's new film, "Her," a lonely man named Theodore, played by Joaquin Phoenix, develops a relationship with a disembodied, electronic voice, played by Scarlett Johansson. She is everything to him — mother, comforter, turn-on, friend and helpmate — and he falls in love with her. Yet she is just software. This profound existential loneliness doesn't worry Theodore though because isolation is his default state.
In this film, every character has retreated into her machine. The question is how can they love?
Emotional invisibility can also explain the vitriol found on websites — clearly people say things on blogs or the Internet they would never say in person primarily because they do not have to experience the emotional reactions of those attacked. From the editor of a men's rights website: "The real question here is not whether these women deserve the business end of a right hook, they obviously do, and some of them deserve one hard enough to leave them in an unconscious, innocuous pile on the ground." In a review of Michael Kimmel's book, "Angry White Men" in the Nov. 24 edition of The New York Times, writer Hanna Rosin recounts the case of George Sodini, a 48-year-old who killed five women and then himself because "I dress good, am clean shaven, bathe, touch of cologne — yet 30 million women rejected me." Obviously, Kimmel didn't actually know 30 million women. Yet because of social media, he may have felt he did — and he wasn't hearing back from them.
This disseverance makes it easy to spin others as the "bad" and ourselves as the "good." Distance renders people invisible and their suffering immaterial to our lives. And so we cut food stamps for poor children, and end unemployment extensions for 1.3 million people out of work. Daniel Coleman, writing in "The Great Divide," a series about inequality, says "a prerequisite to empathy is simply paying attention to the person in pain. Tuning into the needs and feelings of another person … can lead to understanding, concern and, if the circumstances are right, compassionate action."
Cutting off aid to the poor has everything to do with a "them and us" moral viewpoint, easily exacerbated by psychic and affective distance. A 2011 study released by Feeding America finds that 17 million children — one in four in the country — lives without consistent access to food. In September, the House voted to cut $4 billion from SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). One result is that free lunch meals end for 210,000 children. It is so much easier to judge if I don't know you and starve is only a word. Freud called this "the narcissism of minor differences."
Yes, I like my phone. And I sometimes post on Facebook. But I am concerned for my country — the widening gulf between the haves and have-nots and the increasing paucity of mercy in our culture — that may be impossible to repair without addressing the root cause, the breakdown of empathy. Now go tweet that!
Lynn Wenzel lives in Grass Valley.