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An Embarrassment of Riches: Wealthy People Lack Empathy, Ethics

empathyAmerica is in the midst of an empathy crisis, driven by multiple factors. First, there’s the obvious: increased anonymous use of the Internet allows a lack of empathy to thrive, not to mention the fact that even close friends and family members interact more on social media than they do in real life these days. Humans don’t see each other’s faces the way we used to. We aren’t in the same room when we communicate. We do more typing than we do talking, and as Louis C.K. so brilliantly pointed out recently, that lack of physical communication can lead to disastrous results.

Millennials raised with instant messaging and texting over talking are described as having “a 48% decrease in empathetic concern” compared to young people in 1979, according to Psychology Today. Research also shows “that today’s college students were less likely to have empathetic feelings for people less fortunate than them.” This kind of criticism of Millennials has itself been criticized; a blogger named Whitney Hess notes that while it’s true Millennials are empathy-challenged in face-to-face interactions as a result of growing up in an environment saturated with technology, Millennials in fact use that technology as a means of expressing their empathy and concern. I find that both a fascinating and terrifying potential truth. So what we’re turning humans into robots incapable of expressing emotion with their voices and bodies in the physical world? They’re really caring robots who make lots of donations to charity via text, and their GIFs and memes are hilarious. Can’t win ‘em all!

This generational decrease in real-world empathy as a result of heavy interaction with technology has the Gen-X parents of young children as well as professionals in the fields of psychology, medicine and education in a panic, wondering how we can teach little kids empathy and emotional intelligence. Faye Rogaski de Muyshondt has created a thriving business called socialsklz:-) (yes, the emoticon is part of the brand name) with the purpose of giving “children the skills they need to thrive in the modern world,” according to her book socialsklz:-) for success. There’s no doubt de Muyshondt is a pioneer in teaching interpersonal skills to children with the hopes of combating the isolation and awkwardness that stem from growing up digital. Her classes cover subjects like using mindful behavior, communicating via body language, giving a good handshake, making proper introductions, being patient and making friends. Workshops for young children include a “socialsklz :-) dinner party” and an excursion where children put their out-and-about skills to use.

So while it’s true that technology creates apathy, it’s not just the prevalence of technology promoting the lack of empathy in our lives. Affluence can also create intolerance where there should be empathy and compassion. It’s worth reminding ourselves that even the poor interact daily with technology in our wealthy American society, but unlike poor people, the extremely wealthy are shielded from a need to empathize with the struggles of others. Put simply by The New York Times, “Rich People Just Care Less.”

In that opinion piece, Daniel Goleman writes, “A growing body of recent research shows that people with the most social power pay scant attention to those with little such power. This tuning out has been observed, for instance, with strangers in a mere five-minute get-acquainted session, where the more powerful person shows fewer signals of paying attention, like nodding or laughing. Higher-status people are also more likely to express disregard, through facial expressions, and are more likely to take over the conversation and interrupt or look past the other speaker.”

In other words, high-status players lack interest in anyone who can’t help them. However, power dynamics are not entirely exclusive to the rich, Goleman notes. “Though the more powerful pay less attention to us than we do to them, in other situations we are relatively higher on the totem pole of status — and we, too, tend to pay less attention to those a rung or two down,” he says. So you can be the high-status player in a given encounter without being a high-status player in society at large. But, it turns out, those of us who are not high-status players in the culture overall are more in touch with the needs of others. It’s a survival mechanism, Goleman says.

“While the wealthy can hire help,” he writes, “those with few material assets are more likely to value their social assets: like the neighbor who will keep an eye on your child from the time she gets home from school until the time you get home from work. The financial difference ends up creating a behavioral difference. Poor people are better attuned to interpersonal relations — with those of the same strata, and the more powerful — than the rich are, because they have to be.”

Being able to commiserate with others bonds us to them. So empathy, for the lower classes, is a survival tool. But it’s not just that. To diminish the power of empathy by defining it as ultimately self-serving is unacceptable. Empathy is about connection. It is an emotional Namaste; I see you feeling what I too have felt so I feel it with you and for you and experience compassion for all of us. Empathy extends beyond the self into what ties us universally. Empathy is, in a way, a form of love.

It’s easy to be angry at adults of any age who show a lack of empathy, whether that’s as a result of entitlement or alienation. I get my panties in a bunch frequently when writers who live in a world of privilege project their lack of morality or particular world view onto everyone in an effort to make themselves feel better about the unethical behavior around them. You’ll see pieces written from that perspective here and there in the Times, or on Salon, or in New York Magazine, like the feature Lisa Miller wrote for the October 14th issue on ethical parenting. She accuses all parents of being unethical, going to inappropriate and unfair lengths to offer their children an advantage, when that’s not universally true.

Entitled behavior like the kind she describes in her piece (purposely sending your kid to school with lice because you don’t want to distract them the night before a big test) is not as pervasive among lower class people as it is among high-status players, because low-status players live in near constant fear of punitive reaction from a world of mean, scary, un-empathetic people who are out to get them. An entitled person suggesting that “everybody does it” when it comes to this kind of behavior shows an obvious lack of perspective about the way the other half lives, and without perspective and understanding, how can there be empathy? My sympathies here (and always) are with the low-status player, and yet I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that a low-status player might also purposely send their child to school with lice, pretending they didn’t see the eggs on their child’s head, because they felt too helpless and/or ashamed to deal with it, so they ignored it. The result here is the same, the reasoning is different. One reaction comes from entitlement, the other from shame. In the end, though, all the kids get lice, and you can’t deny that we live in a world that is kinder to rich people who cause problems than to poor ones.

In spite of my personal bias favoring the underdog, I’m trying to grow in my ability to feel compassion for even the most entitled jerk. (As you can see, I’m not quite there yet.) I was enormously humbled last night as this lesson was driven home to me while listening to what Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teen who was shot in the face by the Taliban for promoting education, told Jon Stewart about compassion during an interview on “The Daily Show.” Asked when she knew the Taliban was targeting her, she replied:

In 2012, I was with my father, and someone came and she told us, “Have you seen on Google that if you search your name the Taliban have threatened you?” I just could not believe it. I said, no, it’s not true. And even after the threat when we saw it, I was not worried about myself that much. I was worried about my father, because we thought that the Taliban are not that much cruel that they would kill a child, because I was 14 at that time. But later on I started thinking about that, and I used to think that a Talib would come and he would just kill me. Then I said, if he comes, what would you do Malala? Then I would reply myself that, “Malala, just take a shoe and hit him.” But then I said, “If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others that much with cruelty and that much harshly. You must fight others, but through peace and through dialogue and through education.” Then I said, “I’d tell him how important education is and that I even want education for your children as well.” And I would tell him, “That’s what I want to tell you, now do what you want.”

Malala Yousafzai is living proof that empathy and ethics are related, and that they keep us tied to each other. Empathy creates compassion, which causes people to want to behave ethically and not exploit or hurt others. Conversely, people feel most compelled to behave ethically towards people they empathize with, so the challenge young, tech-savvy adults and the wealthy face is to create empathy in their lives by connecting physically with others and keeping-it-real in the real world. The challenge for everyone else is to be like Malala and have compassion for the unethical while we fight them through dialogue, instead of hitting them with shoes.

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