It seems that empathy — the ability to recognize, understand, and share another person’s plight, pain, or suffering — is on the decline in the United States. It is difficult to go through a single news cycle without being confronted with images of individuals who have callously disregarded the needs of others. In just the past few weeks, two doormen of a Manhattan luxury high-rise apartment building were videotaped as they failed to come to the aid of an elderly Asian American woman who was being violently attacked on a sidewalk in front of their building — while they watched and did nothing. In fact, the videotapes showed the doormen not just watching the attack but hurriedly closing and locking the glass doors into the building while they viewed the savage beating of the defenseless woman.
A week earlier, in Washington, D.C., two girls aged 13 and 15 deployed a stun-gun on a 66-year-old Pakistani motorist in an attempt to try and steal his car. When he refused to comply to their demands to surrender his car, the two girls panicked and crashed the car with the elderly man in it. The force of the collision ejected the man from his car onto the sidewalk where he lay dying. No one tried to stop the girls from stealing the car. Worse, no one — including the bystanders — paid any attention to the Pakistani man who lay bleeding out on the sidewalk. Ignoring the dying man, one of the two perpetrators demanded to be allowed back into the crashed car to retrieve her phone.
It would be easy to blame COVID for the empathy deficit. Some have claimed that the callous acts we are witnessing are due to the alienation and social isolation many of us are feeling as we continue to mask our faces and socially distance from others. Others — including former President Barack Obama and President Joseph Biden — have tried to blame former President Trump for creating a culture in which people no longer care about each other.
They are wrong about that. The empathy deficit is much more complex than either Obama or Biden seems to think. Besides, the dramatic declines in empathy preceded President Trump’s arrival on the political scene by more than two decades. Social science research data demonstrates a precipitous decline in empathy that began during the Clinton and Bush administrations and has continued for decades. As far back as 2010, researchers at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research found that college students were 40 percent less empathetic than they were in the 1979. They found that the steepest declines emerged in the 10 years preceding the study.
According to the research, young people less often described themselves as “soft-hearted” or as having “tender, concerned feelings” for those around them. More of them say that “other people’s misfortunes” usually do not bother them. Boston Globe reporter Keith O’Brien concluded in an article based on the Michigan study that “Young Americans today live in a world of endless connections and up-to-the-minute information on one another, constantly updating friends, loved ones, and total strangers.… But … behind all this communication and connectedness, something is missing.… A world without empathy … is a world we wouldn’t want to live in.”
It is possible that we are increasingly inundated with news to the point that we may be unable to process it all sufficiently. There is so much horror to deal with that we may simply be tuning it out. In just the past week we have been confronted with media images of a crying 10-year-old migrant child who has been abandoned in the desert near the Mexican border to fend for himself. This was preceded by the video of two toddlers being callously dropped over the border fence by men who were paid to deliver them to the United States but who left them frightened and alone in the desert until the Border Patrol rescued them. We are daily confronted with video of thousands of children in crammed into plastic holding pens at the border while they await their fate in the midst of political posturing on both sides of the political aisle.
Those on the political left tend to blame those on the political right for the empathy deficit. Even social science researchers have used social science data in an effort to claim that college students who identify as leftist or liberal are much more likely than conservatives to want to help others. In the 2019 Annual Freshman survey, the study authors claim that those students who enter college identifying as politically left or liberal are more likely than their middle-of-the-road or conservative peers to claim that that they are willing to help others in difficulty. But the measures used to judge how students helped others were problematic. Participating in community service and a willingness to engage in community action programs to help others were used as indicators of a willingness to help others in difficulty. Not surprisingly, only 30 percent of conservative students were willing to engage in community action programs — programs that are almost always geared to leftist causes — to help others while more than half of all liberal incoming students indicated that they would do so. None of this means that conservative or moderate undergraduate students suffer disproportionately from a lack of empathy compared to students on the left.
Empathy is essential for any society. Former President Barack Obama often spoke of the need for empathy. In his Audacity of Hope, he wrote “a sense of empathy is at the heart of my moral code.” But his application of empathy was highly selective, and always led to public policy programs that supported liberal causes — including his expansive abortion rights policies. Obama paid no attention at all to those who disagreed with him on the sacredness of unborn life and the pain of an unborn child who is subjected to a brutal late-term abortion. Likewise, President Biden claims to feel the pain of those with gender dysphoria but ignores the pain of high-school female athletes who are losing out on college scholarships because he has opened women’s sports to biological males who are stronger and faster than the girls they are competing against. And, at the border, Biden is turning a blind eye to the allegations of sexual abuse and neglect of minor children who are incarcerated in Biden’s migrant detention facilities in San Antonio.
It is true that empathy is learned from others, and when political leaders appear to have none, it trickles down to others. “I think we all have empathy,” the late African American poet laureate Maya Angelou once suggested, but “we may not have enough courage to display it.”
It would take courage to truly feel the pain of those the Biden administration has invited into the country and then abandoned. It would take courage to truly feel the pain of the unborn child who is being torn apart in a late-term abortion. It would have taken courage for those doormen in New York City to have gone out and confront the attacker of the elderly Asian woman. It would have taken courage to minister to the Pakistani man dying on the pavement in Washington, D.C., while the perpetrators had their wounds attended to instead.
It is possible that, rather than an empathy deficit, what we are truly experiencing is a deficit of courage.
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