Will We Confront a Fundamental Lack of Empathy for Others?

retro gifts

Had I not already been up for a couple hours by the time it happened, I would have been more than a little annoyed with the neighbors who started their Jesus-centric fireworks celebration at exactly 6:30 am this morning. I should clarify that they aren't close neighbors. I don't know exactly where they live, but the direction of the many loud explosions was sufficient to give me a general idea. Had they been close and identifiable, I think I might have paid them a visit because my curiosity over what would possess anyone to do something like this was so intense I'm not sure I would have been able to restrain it.

It continues to baffle me how many Mississippians seem genuinely unable to celebrate anything without fireworks or how insensitive their use of fireworks is for everyone else. They operate as if they are the only ones who matter, so it shouldn't surprise me that someone would get to the fireworks at 6:30 am. Hell, the person probably thought he was doing the rest of us a favor by waiting until 6:30 am!

I'm not interested in writing yet another post about fireworks. I've written several of those already, and I think I've said everything I care to say on the subject. I may feel different when I'm kept up all night on New Year's Eve, but we'll see. Instead, I'm thinking about the much bigger and far more important subject of empathy, compassion, civility, common decency, or whatever else one might prefer to call it. Specifically, I am thinking about how most of us understand that the world does not revolve around us and that we share it with others who are every bit as valuable as we are but that others...well...don't.

There are many good candidates for what we might call this phenomenon. I suppose the most extreme version begins to sound a little bit like psychopathy, but that is too strong in most cases and simply doesn't capture most of it. In order to capture most of it, two words come to mind: oblivious and entitled.

Thoroughly Oblivious to Others

I think "oblivious" captures much of the problem very well. I've personally interacted with countless people who seem to be almost completely oblivious to the fact that other people exist who may not share 100% of their preferences in all situations. They do not consider how their behavior might affect others. If they are awake and have fireworks, they see no reason not to use them.

The nice thing about these people is that it is sometimes possible to shatter their obliviousness by reminding them about reality and the fact that other people exist within it. Many of them are appropriately apologetic when receiving such a reminder. When they say things like, "I'm so sorry. I had no idea..." I tend to think they are being genuine. They really had no idea. And they really had no idea because they hadn't bothered to think beyond themselves. Other people aren't valid entities but more like set pieces in their own film. I'm confident that everyone knows at least one person like this, and I suspect there are far more of them out there than most of us realize.

Aware But Entitled

Not everyone who behaves like this is oblivious to others. Some are well aware that other people are out there and may even disagree with them; they just don't care because they believe they are entitled to do what they want without regard for others. In my experience, it is much harder to reach these people. Unlike the oblivious person, the entitled person is far more likely to argue than to apologize.

The entitled person is obsessed with "muh rights" or "muh freedums," so you'd better be prepared to hear about them. If anything you say is perceived as trying to limit their freedom to do whatever they want whenever they want without regard for others, they are certain to tell you all about their rights. This is someone who seems to have real difficulty grasping the notion that just because it might be legal for me to do something does not necessarily mean I should do it. For them, all that matters is what they want.

A Fundamental Lack of Empathy for Others

I'm sure there are competing theories, but I keep coming back to the idea that all of this reflects a very basic lack of empathy for others that can probably be traced back to early childhood but may have both biological and environmental influences. Some people do seem to be like this almost from birth; others appear to become worse over the course of their lives. I am not going to go off on this tangent here, but I will note that there seems to be something about social media in particular that reinforces this. Both obliviousness and entitlement seem to be getting worse, and I suspect that social media might be one reason. Of course, there are plenty of others.

How do we turn this around? I think that question may be premature. I'm not sure enough people have reached the point of wanting to turn it around. I fear that this is one of those cases where this first step is going to be necessary. You see, it won't be enough to point at others and demand that they need to treat others better. We've got to point at ourselves too and acknowledge that most of us could do better as well. I'm not seeing much of that yet. Instead, I'm seeing lots of energy being devoted to justifying the behavior of "my side" while condemning the behavior of "their side."

And this brings us to what I believe is the real challenge: Why should I be empathic and consider others' feelings if I don't expect them to behave similarly? Until we have a good answer to that question, both individually and collectively, I'm not sure there is much we can do.