June 24, 2014

The Struggle to Find Empathy Online

One of my favorite online articles is also one of the most painful for me to read.

With that attention-getting line done with, here’s why. This article is “Waiting for the 8th,” a Washington Post piece by Eli Saslow that takes a personal, insightful look at an impoverished family’s reliance on food stamps. It’s great since it does so much of what good journalism should: it gives a deeper understanding of a different culture, shatters common stereotypes (it’s amazing how much more caring those in poverty can be than others), and made me take a serious look at my own life with new perspective. To put it simply, the articles inspires a lot of empathy for those worse off than me, and I can’t resist revisiting it every now and then.

However, it also makes me anxious. There are times when I just want to stop reading and do something else. To lose myself in Twitter or funny YouTube videos. To avoid the painful clarity the article brings.

For me, this symbolizes something about the Internet that’s always fascinated me: it gives us so many chances to discover new ideas and build empathy towards others; yet even if someone like me wants to, we’re often resistant to it. It’s like wanting to hit on a girl but feeling too worried since you don’t know if she’s dating someone already: Part of us wants to so badly, yet another part keeps hitting the brakes too hard. The result is humiliation and lost opportunity, as I know all too well in both cases, and can often be a never-ending struggle.

Distractions Block The Path to Empathy

The best benefit of the Internet for me is based on exposure to new ideas. We can read about and understand different cultures, religions, social circles, political parties, and almost anything to get a clearer understanding of the world. The internet, unfortunately, only implies the ability to bring us all together through shared knowledge.

I say “implies” because it’s no secret that the effect has been mainly the opposite. Instead of a lecture on why, I’ll just condense the facts to some bullet points:

  • People are prone to look for info that already agrees with them. There’s so much online it’s not hard at all, even for fringe conspiracy theorists.
  • People spend so much time online they spend less with actual people. Being away from real people is a major empathy drawback.
  • People often prefer to use the Internet for comforting distractions to dull tough thoughts.
  • People prefer to rant their own narcissistic thoughts on a blog where their name is the freaking URL and then make posts that are disguised as informative when they’re just unconsciously showing off their skills to any employer who happens to google their name. They’re the worst kind, in my own unironic opinion.
  • If you want a more detailed look at this, I’d recommend this book on account of it being awesome.

The overall message here is that people are more likely to use the Internet for comfort and confirmation instead of exposure to new ideas that help us feel empathy. It’s why I instinctually prefer watching those youtube cat videos instead of reading another heart-hitting article.

It’d be hypocritical to say I don’t fit at least one of those above bullet points (thankfully not the fourth one). But a decent amount of what I do online still ranges from comforting illusion to flat-out distraction. I’d spend a few hours watching online shows or movies (legally, or course) and have my head buzzing full of all the same fluff for even longer afterwards. I know we all need time for our minds to unwind, but there’s a difference between relaxing and just turning your mind off. I’m guilty of crossing that line multiple times.

This “mental turning off” is a major barrier to putting the Internet to much better use. These distractions and selective comforts are like drug addictions that distract us from a healthy diet – even though they’re ultimately worse for our health, our brains are wired to want them more and not truly consider the consequences. Those are staying in our own little worlds instead of taking a step into someone else’s.

Finding Empathy Online Is Tough Yet Possible

I can still say I’ve tried several times, though. I read online articles from both sides of the political spectrum (risking brain damage in some cases) and trying to at least understand what good reasons or good logic they stem from. I sometimes read about different religions to see what’s real and what’s distorted by the lovely monster known as broadcast news to get a more accurate understanding. Once I can find reliable information, it always has the desired effect.

There are times when this understanding has really shown through. One day at Syracuse University I visited the Islamic Center of CNY for some interviews, and what I’d read about the basics of Islam made it feel much less alienating than it has before. This helped me talk just fine with the people there, and they were just that, they were people. Heck, they were actually nicer and more approachable than many outside the center. One person working there told me he believed God was so far above us, that compared to His power everyone on Earth was all equal no matter what. This meant God had the same expectations of all of us to be caring and loving, regardless of how different we think we are. His Islamic faith was the basis of universal caring and compassion.

It’s amazing how what I’ve read gave me (and helped me find elsewhere) even more empathy for different people. Certainly not how I’d feel learning about Islam from what’s on many broadcast channels…

I haven’t been completely successful, but I haven’t completely failed either. That counts for something, at the very least.

Can We Make Finding Empathy Easier?

Even with what progress I have made, I still feel resistant to lots of different ideas in sensitive areas that would break down my old beliefs. I’ve been thinking why this is the case, and have managed to come up with some commonly-held core beliefs in people that make it harder to seek new ideas and perspectives online.

These beliefs are that:

  1. Our own views must be objectively true.
  2. We have total control over our lives.
  3. People worse off than us get what they deserve.
  4. There’s only one possible path to be happy.
  5. We shouldn’t be around people different or “below us.”

At this point in my life I know most of these points are complete crap. To debunk these going down the list:

  1. Our own views are just the ones that fit best with our identities and can’t always be the same for others. Therefore, they can’t be objectively true, only relatively true.
  2. There are tons of outside factors that control our lives, such as society, culture, our circumstances of birth, and everyday chance. We just like to ignore them since we don’t like admitting how little control we ultimately have.
  3. Just because we’re raised to believe in a “just world” where bad things only happen to bad people, and vice versa, doesn’t change the fact that the world can still be unfair and cruel.
  4. There are all kinds of paths to be happy, we’re just assaulted with messages that make us think there are only a few – any other ones must then be “bad” by comparison.
  5. We need people with different ideas to broaden our perspective of the world, even if we think those people are “below us.” Otherwise our minds become stagnant and unchanging, unable to correct any ideas we fear could be wrong.

For me, this adds up to the biggest obstacle to empathy, from the internet or otherwise: We can know all the truths above and even accept them as values we should have, yet never live our lives by them. I’ve known them for a while and can still list countless examples of being closed off and frustrated over meaningless things I know shouldn’t affect me.

In that vain, I don’t think people can ever fully overcome those beliefs that stand in the way of empathy. I certainly never completely will. The internet can’t change the fact that we’re human, after all.

Can We Ever Find Empathy Online?

In the end, do we have a responsibility to overcome all this? To break through all these false beliefs and feel more empathy and understanding for others? Is it a tough obstacle we have some moral obligation to clear for the sake of a better world? Should we try to do the same thing for ourselves and even inspire that thinking in others?

I personally think so, and I’ll keep trying to get better at it somehow. That’s one benefit of living a digital life – We can find tons of ways to win the struggle for empathy if we look in the right places online. Every little step in actually finding them means more than I think.