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How Do We Teach Kids Empathy in an Age of Narcissism?

This morning a friend pointed me to an article (on Fox News, of all places) that got me thinking. As a parent, maybe it’ll make you think, too.

The piece, entitled “Reality TV Short-Circuits Human Empathy,” makes some mighty broad generalizations about the television genre in question, as you might expect from reading the title. But in a way, relative to a perceived erosion of human empathy, I think the article actually doesn’t go broad or general enough. And by that I mean: of course demonizing reality television specifically as the root of a collective waning of empathy is far too simple, pat, and easy. Because the truth, I think, is that something even larger and more pervasive is at work here. But that something is, unfortunately, far more complex and difficult to nail down.

To begin, the dearth of empathy examined by the author of the article relative to Russell Armstrong’s suicide isn’t something that was caused by reality television – that’s obviously a gross oversimplification (is sadomasochism caused by leather and whips, by the metal used to make restraints and chains?). But what the article does rightly isolate is that people’s responses to broadcasts of strangers’ public misfortune, pain, and tragedy – responses expressed primarily on the internet, it should be noted – DO seem increasingly contemptuous and devoid of empathy, often to the point of being shockingly heartless and cruel. Sadly, this failure of empathy doesn’t appear to be something limited to just the subject of television, let alone to just people on reality TV shows specifically. Rather, as the Fox News article itself underscores, quite often the most dehumanizing commentary and reactions played out in user-generated social media (on Twitter/Facebook, blogs and blog comments, YouTube, etc) have less than nothing to do with television. In 2011, any public person’s life – be they a high-profile politician or a small-time blogger posting updates about their baby on a relatively obscure and unknown (but public) site – can now become fodder for discussion that in no way acknowledges, let alone respects, that person’s humanity. Indeed, it is as if the person in question is a wholly fictional character in a story, not a real, flesh-and-blood person with feelings, just like the person taking pains to tear them apart.

Regardless of the medium, it seems there is something about making details of one’s life available for public consumption as “entertainment” that brings out the worst in people, that generates a dehumanizing chasm and transforms any revelations of pain or tragedy into a kind of sport in the eyes of the public. Why? Where does this impulse to dehumanize come from? Honestly, I don’t know.

To some extent I’ve experienced all of this first-hand, over the course of my many years writing online, and I’ve written about how disillusioning it is to confront an online world that is oftentimes downright cruel to people going through unspeakable human tragedy. And while it’s true that anonymity undoubtedly plays a role in all of this – people’s ability to let the worst devils of their nature have free reign and give voice to whatever the basest parts of themselves think and feel at any moment without repercussions certainly doesn’t help raise the level of discourse – I don’t believe the internet is causal either, though how we have collectively begun to process it might be. For despite all the social networking and friending and superficial e-connectedness, I think these troubling instances and interactions are actually symptoms of a greater and more pervasive erosion of our sense of real human connectedness and interconnectedness. These are, I believe, indications that something is deeply wrong with how we, as individuals, are being trained to think about each other’s humanity, and about how that relates (or doesn’t relate) to our own. In the United States in particular, I fear we are becoming a nation of disassociating narcissists, no longer able to imagine other’s feelings as our own or to recognize ourselves in another’s experience.

How do we change this? On a sweeping, large-scale societal level, I’m not sure that we can do anything. But on an individual level, as parents, I think we each might take a long look at what we’re teaching our kids about the value of other people, about the value of other people’s experiences and feelings. We need to underscore the importance of civility and kindness to our children. We need to actively foster empathy, and show our kids that every person has value and deserves respect. Beyond that? I don’t know.

What do you think? How do you explain what seems to be a growing failure of empathy in our society? How do you, as a parent, teach and model empathy to your kids? What role do you think the media and the internet play? What, if anything, can we as individuals do to change this trend?

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Read more from Tracey Gaughran-Perez at her personal blog Sweetney.com

 

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