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Beware America's Shocking Loss of Empathy

The symptoms of a society coming unhinged

Photo by Gage Skidmore, creative commons license
Source: Photo by Gage Skidmore, creative commons license

Here’s a sobering thought for the idealists among us: Even if we someday achieve a truly fair and just society, that society will nevertheless be inhabited by the same species that produced the Holocaust. “Humans are capable of many things,” as author Noam Chomsky once told me. “Some of them are horrible, some are wonderful.”

Knowing that the human animal’s behavioral capacities cover a spectrum from the horrific to the kindhearted, it seems obvious that our challenge going forward is to create social structures that lead to the more desirable outcomes. There’s plenty of room for debate over details, but the basic framework of where we want to go shouldn’t be very controversial: general prosperity, a healthy and educated population, a government free of corruption and responsive to human needs, a sustainable natural environment, and a safe and free social environment.

Most would agree that the political realm is an important component in achieving such a society, but if that's so we should be concerned about the state of affairs in America today. That is, the country’s political dynamics—the interactions between candidates, the policy proposals being considered, and even the conduct of ordinary citizens—increasingly reflect a complete lack of human empathy, a view toward others that is willfully insensitive, if not outright contemptuous. The objective observer is left wondering whether the United States, politically and as a society, is sliding toward ominous realms on that aforementioned spectrum of potential behaviors.

Donald Trump’s now-famous Mexican wall proposal is perhaps the most obvious example of America’s conscious detachment from the rest of humanity, but it’s not the worst. That distinction would probably go to Ted Cruz, who declared that he would carpet bomb the Middle East, bragging that he would find out “if sand can glow in the dark,” apparently with little concern about the loss of innocent life.

Blame the candidates for this devolved level of discourse, but bear in mind that they make such statements with confidence that voter support will follow. And it has, for Trump and Cruz are among the few still standing from what was once a large field. As the candidates on the GOP debate stage last week chose to insult one another rather than debate serious policy, voters are getting the political discourse that reflects their own mindset: angry, fearful, incapable of complex analysis, and hostile toward others.

Little wonder, then, that Trump’s demagoguery has such appeal. Feeding the frustration of a working class that has been decimated, Trump disparages one group after another—Mexicans, Muslims, African-Americans, Asians, women, and of course his competitors—and he rises in the polls. Adversaries are quickly branded “losers” or “flunkies” or “dopes” or “lowlifes.”

Empathy, and its close cousin compassion, can be reflected in public policy that shows concern for fellow humans. In response to the economic crisis of the 1930s, for example, America embraced the New Deal, with public works projects that benefited everyone and other programs that promoted a sense that, as a society, we are all in this together. Even though politics was still contentious and the nation grappled with numerous social problems, a sense of a shared humanity was seen in public policy and political rhetoric.

Contrast this to the mood in America today, where almost all discourse is uncivil, whether online, on cable television or on the debate stage, and the utter lack of empathy becomes apparent. Nobody cares to calm down, to consider what it’s like to walk in the other person's shoes, to entertain the notion that others may feel the way they do for reasons that are understandable and valid. Instead today's America, from our presidential candidates to our blogosphere and major media, more often thrives on outrage, emotion, and personal attacks.

It's noteworthy, and undeniable, that two antonyms of empathy—disdain and indifference—have become cornerstones of American politics. When outsiders are routinely reviled, targeted for blame by an impulsive population that isn’t capable of rational thought, bad things can happen. Add doses of anti-intellectualism, nationalism, and militarism to the mix, and you have a formula for disaster. Just ask Germany.

Empathetic and compassionate policy does not require that a society sacrifice its well being for the betterment of strangers, but it does require an intelligent assessment of what is happening internally and around the world, a minimal level of humane values, and rational attempts to apply those values. Nobody would ever claim that America has been a model for empathy—our history of slavery and racism negates that possibility immediately, as do many of our military escapades and foreign policy priorities. But nevertheless, the affirmative disavowal of empathy in America today is in many ways unique.

Consider, for example, the way Trump not only endorsed the use of torture, but did so in a way that doesn’t even portray the decision as regrettable, as a necessary evil. Instead, he boldly insisted that “even if it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway.” And the crowd erupts in cheers.

If this doesn't worry you, it should. Bear in mind that even the Democratic frontrunner points to an alleged war criminal, Henry Kissinger, as her foreign policy mentor of sorts. Suffice it to say that empathy was not one of Kissinger’s prominent qualities.

Meanwhile, the one major-party campaign that rejects such a view of the world is labeled "too idealistic.” Though I began this piece with a sobering thought for idealists, I wouldn’t necessarily want to suggest that idealism should be dismissed. After all, nowadays it seems to be the only view that doesn’t reject empathy. And without empathy, our humanity is dead.

David Niose's latest book is Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America from the Attack on Reason.

Follow on Twitter: @ahadave

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