Empathy does not require agreement. You can be sensitive to one’s circumstance without approving of or condoning the actions that led to them. Why then, for many, does disagreeing with someone’s lifestyle or choices seem to all but eliminate the ability or desire to care? Seems we are quicker than ever to mount our high horse and turn our nose down at others when they fall or suffer tragedy. We’ve created a culture of victim blaming and imperfection shaming.
News broke that Grammy-nominated singer Demi Lovato suffered from an apparent drug overdose and the comment sections of blogs and Instagram posts were filled with insensitive, dismissive remarks to the effect of her meeting a deserved fate. Never mind that Lovato has spoken openly about her struggles with substance abuse, mental health, and disorders. Never mind that addiction is a documented illness. Because she “chose” to do drugs, somehow her suffering is less sad.
We did the same thing to Whitney Houston and other celebrities fighting a public battle with drugs and/or alcohol. Yes, our actions have consequences that we must face sooner or later. But retribution does not make the pain any less real.
Again, empathy does not require agreement.
A 20-year-old music artist, XXXTentacion, was shot and killed just as his adult life is beginning, and we can’t feel anything resembling compassion. Granted, he was a seemingly troubled young man with a long rap sheet containing some truly heinous acts. That matters. All is not forgotten in his passing, and accountability does not expire. But, he was also a talented young man not yet even of legal drinking age with limitless potential that will never be realized – a legacy left undone before he had a chance to possibly turn it around. That matters too.
Our lack of empathy is a factor in why some can see an unarmed kid gunned down by those sworn to protect him and feel nothing for the kid or his family because he talked back, stole a bag of chips from the gas station or vandalized a car 10 years ago. It is also a factor in why some can see kids locked in cages, alone in unfamiliar surroundings, separated from their mothers and feel nothing because they’re “illegals.”
We can be downright cruel behind a keyboard. But why? Why are we so comfortable being so ugly?
Social media has created a space that encourages the pursuit of reassurance, followers, and virality. As a result, the aim of many is to post the funniest, most shocking or controversial comments they can think of, no matter how mean or inappropriate, in hopes of garnering attention and support. They may not even mean the things said, though some absolutely do.
Social media has also made everyone, especially celebrities, more accessible and susceptible to judgment. So, we’ll hurl insults, bully and react absurdly to posted photos and headlines, with little regard for the person on the receiving end of our malice. All in the name of likes and laughs.
Are we really lacking empathy? Or are we simply existing in a time where its value has been trumped (no pun intended) by social media culture and our having been desensitized? But we don’t just express our lack of concern for others in private amongst friends and family, we demonstrate it publicly. We want them and everyone else to know just how little we care.
We may have never done drugs or physically assaulted anyone, but we are all flawed. Just the same, we are not our flaws.
Empathy does not require agreement.