An Empathy Crisis In America

The importance of relating to the tragic death of George Floyd.

Posted Jun 05, 2020

In his last hour of life just over a week ago, African-American Minneapolis resident George Floyd repeatedly pleaded, “I can't breathe… please stop.” He deferentially asked Derek Chauvin, the white officer with his knee on Floyd’s neck, to remove his knee, repeating, “Please, please, please.” As the world now knows, Chauvin didn’t listen.

Generally, fanatics don’t listen—whether they are religious zealots, racists, sexists, or political extremists. They tend to engage in “psychic equivalence,” a psychological state identified by the British psychologist Peter Fonagy and his colleagues in which an individual equates their subjective thoughts with objective reality. In other words, they consider their own beliefs and the truth to be one and the same, without exception, such that one can be substituted for the other.

The danger of psychic equivalence is that empathy takes a back seat as actions are chosen based on predetermined beliefs—as those beliefs are deemed “equivalent” to reality. It is for this reason that Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old white supremacist who killed nine African-American worshippers in a church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015 almost aborted his mission.

Roof reportedly told police that he “almost didn’t go through with it because everyone was so nice to him.” When one man pleaded with him to stop, he replied, “No, you’ve raped our women, and you are taking over the country,” followed by, as if to convince himself, “I have to do what I have to do.”

Let’s consider Chauvin. Was he a fanatic, an extreme force of will acting alone? He was with three other white and Asian police officers, who—like the officers at the scene of the choking murder of Eric Garner, a 43-year-old father of six children arrested for selling loose cigarettes—apparently did not find his behavior aberrant enough to stop it. It seems to be not a lack of quick reflexes to prevent a capricious, malicious abuse of authority, but an unwillingness to act for the duration of the eight minutes and forty-six seconds that Chauvin had his knee pressed into Floyd’s neck.

It is for this reason that many people in this country cannot understand how the murder of George Floyd feels for African-American families. They do not consider Chauvin just a bad apple, but part and parcel of a system that dehumanizes African-American men, killing them at nine times the rate of other Americans. Even though most African-Americans recognize that the Chauvin’s out there may be few, the fact that they are there makes their lives unsafe. Consider how you would feel about flying if only a few professional pilots were deliberately crashing their planes into mountains.

A friend in Riverside, California fears for her African-American husband every time he steps outside. Another friend, a father of two small children in Leesburg, Virginia, found that the one form of release available to him during the pandemic was to go jogging. That was until the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery while jogging in a suburban neighborhood in Georgia last month by white vigilantes. What did Arbery do? He briefly walked into a home construction site in their neighborhood. So did many others, but they weren’t African-American.

Although many of us do not understand what it’s like to fear for our lives every day from the police, independent of our ethnic or cultural backgrounds we can strongly relate to George Floyd. Why? Because fanatics aren’t the only ones who aren’t listening. A recent meta-analysis of seventy-two studies conducted between 1979 and 2009 found that the empathy levels of American college students have dropped 40 percent, which the authors primarily attribute to the rise of social media.

This decrease in both cognitive empathy (“perspective taking,” or putting yourself in another person’s shoes) and affective empathy (e.g., empathic concern, or feeling what others feel) can only be seen as a grim portent for the future of our society if the current shift toward texting and emailing and away from face-to-face interaction continues. Why listen to a friend in person, after all, if you have dozens of other “friends” awaiting your attention in a virtual queue 24-7 just an app touch or click away?

Clay Banks / Unsplash
We all want safety and security. We all deserve it.
Source: Clay Banks / Unsplash

So what can we do about the state into which our country has plummeted? I once came up with the saying, “I wanted a friend and there was no one. I was a friend and there was everyone.” If you want a friend, be a friend. Instead of crying about how no one listens anymore, start listening. Use your phone as... a phone. Call the people you care about and let them know you are there for them. Provide them with both Quality Time and Quantity Time.

Consider the word “pre-judice”: it comes from “before” and “judgment”—to judge someone before speaking with them. The truth is that you will never understand another person unless you listen to them and immerse yourself deeply into their experience. And that’s only the beginning of understanding: as the latest research has found, personality is malleable; we are constantly changing. We don’t go through life; we grow through life.

Our phones and devices have clearly not fostered our practice of empathy and are removing what makes us, in our essence, human. The result is not just the Derek Chauvin’s and Dylann Roof’s out there; it’s our everyday discourse, or lack of discourse; it’s the social-media-fueled bipartisanship tearing our nation and world apart.

Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill used to disagree during the day and then meet for a whiskey in the evening and part as friends. We need to have these cross-aisle conversations again and even more cross-cultural conversations; we need to listen to each other—especially when we are ostensibly different based on our ethnicity, gender, culture, economic means, or sexual or political orientation. Why? Because we all want the same things: safety, security, a livelihood, a means through which to fulfill our needs for competence, recognition, belonging, and, ultimately, love.

What happened in Minneapolis was a tragic setback for the growth of this country. Many of us—from the vast number of nonviolent, non-looting protestors to the police taking a knee to express their solidarity with them—are picking up the pieces and working for change. It is my deepest hope that, this unmitigated tragedy notwithstanding, many of us will later remember the pandemic as a giant reset button: an opportunity to relearn empathy and see others not as we are, but as they are. Each of us can make the decision to get to know people of other ethnicities on a human level and then share what we learn with others. Why? Our future depends on it.

obi-onyeador / Unsplash
We all essentially want the same things.
Source: obi-onyeador / Unsplash

What have you learned from the George Floyd tragedy? How will you go about getting to know people of other ethnicities on a human level and then sharing what you learn with others? Please share in the comments.