The Death of Empathy

James Tonkowich, Columnist

The Death of Empathy

In an article on the Steubenville, Ohio, rape trial, Keith Ablow argued that we have raised a generation with little to no empathy. In it he correctly identifies one of the causes:

Having watched tens of thousands of YouTube videos with bizarre scenarios unfolding, having Tweeted thousands of senseless missives of no real importance, having watched contrived “Reality TV” programs in which people are posers in false dramas about love or lust or revenge, having texted millions of times, rather than truly connecting and having lost their real faces to the fake life stories of Facebook, they look upon the actual events of their lives with no more actual investment and actual concern and actual courage than they would look upon a fictional character in a movie.

Ablow is describing a kind of Gnosticism. The “real” world is my interior world — what I feel, desire, believe, and tweet. The world of space, time, matter, and other people becomes blurry at best. Doing “bad things” with my body does not make me a “bad person” nor does doing “good things” make me a “good person.” There is an underlying belief that I am already a good (or perhaps “worthy”) person and what I do is not connected with that inner core of worthiness and entitlement.

The problem, however, is greater than what Ablow describes.

Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith discussing the religious and moral lives of teens and emerging adults relates that researchers the young people they interviewed the same question: Is what you believe about God and morality true for everyone everywhere or is it just is it just a private belief that’s only true for you? That is, is spiritual and moral truth objective or subjective? The vast majority … didn’t understand the question. They were incapable of conceiving what objective truth and morality could possibly mean.

As Tim Keller, pastor of New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, wrote: “The root idea of modernity is the overturning of all authority outside of the self. In the 18th century European ‘Enlightenment’ thinkers insisted that the modern person must question all tradition, revelation, and external authority by subjecting them to the supreme court of his or her own reason and intuition. We are our own moral authority.”

That rejection of outside authority is certainly evident among the Baby Boomers, and Gen Xers, but it has come to full flower in their children — even in the Church. The big difference is that whereas the parents were rebelling against outside authority, their children are incapable of conceiving of any outside authority.

As this relates to empathy, Smith and his team found that emerging adults believe that no one is under any obligation to help others. It’s nice if you help if you feel like it, but no one should feel guilty for ignoring the needy. Thus in the Steubenville case teens saw the victim drunk, naked and unconscious and did nothing. They were, from their point of view, under no obligation to inconvenience themselves.

Add to that, the breakdown in the family, which also kills empathy. In her 2003 essay "Parents or Prisons," economist Jennifer Roback Morse writes:

The basic self-control and reciprocity that a free society takes for granted do not develop automatically. Conscience development takes place in childhood. Children need to develop empathy so they will care whether they hurt someone or whether they treat others fairly. They need to develop self-control so they can follow through on these impulses and do the right thing even if it might benefit them to do otherwise.


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