I took a trip to SPACE, and asked whether empathy was dangerous.

Taking part in the SPACE #Unconference is always a reminder that we have some incredible minds in Australia, willing to work towards the collective goal of solving some of the great challenges of our times.

Erudite minds, accomplished minds, and empathetic minds—which is why when for my discussion I posited whether empathy is dangerous, I knew it would spark some interesting conversation.

And, it did.

My discussion began from an observation that empathy was fervently being touted as a tool by which to bring people together (the hashtag #empathy is used 150,000 times an hour, it seems). Even J-Lo has worn the t-shirt, so you know it’s popular.

But, in a digitally mediated world—one that’s increasingly shaped by online content—I couldn’t help but wonder whether or not our empathy was becoming dangerous.

Why? Because when you explore how empathy and the desire to be empathetic is being weaponised, it becomes frightening how vulnerable it makes us to manipulation, and how divisive its impact can be.

It’s normal to feel an emotional response to injustice. It’s natural to get angry when we feel upset by the information we’re hearing.

And, when our news cycle focuses on an individual victim, our empathy tends to justify this anger and the irrational responses that ensue. In the emotional stirring, our critical thinking can get silenced, and asking questions can make us appear to lack sympathy, so we don’t.

But, thanks to the internet dominating our information, so much of what we read and watch isn’t being vetted by an editorial board. It’s not being fact checked, or regulated. It’s not subject to standards. 

Fake news is dangerous news—content propelled by an agenda is dangerous—both are largely now invisible.

And by manipulating people’s empathy, often through fake news, people like Donald Trump have incited racism, hatred and fear.

“Donald Trump’s rhetoric against immigrants has often employed an empathic appeal. He told people about the suffering of victims, rape victims, assault victims, people who lost their jobs to immigrants. He used people’s empathy for these victims to energise hatred against these groups.” – Yale psychologist Professor Paul Bloom

Empathy exaggerates the impact of a problem and ignites emotional responses. In the heat of emotion, ration and reason get lost.

Understanding this mediation of our sense of empathy, and how it’s shaping our truths and our realities, is something that fascinates me. It seems the filter bubbles in which we now exist and the intellectual isolation they exacerbate, makes us less able to see outside ourselves. 

And, if we can’t see outside ourselves, is empathy really a practical road to compassion?

What is a filter bubble?

The filter bubble concept was introduced in its current form by internet activist Eli Pariser. I say current concept, because the idea of the media we ingest shaping our worldview is not new. He speaks, however, of the intellectual isolation caused through the way the internet as our primary source of information shapes and reinforces our already established perspective, based on our own interactions with it. 

Essentially, both you and I can enter the same search terms into Google, and vastly different responses will be returned, customised according to our existing likes, predilections, and internet habits. 

Likewise, the stories that fill our news feeds and the recommendations provided to us on social media will differ greatly in content and nature, too, enabling us both to experience the ‘same’ world or issue through what might be entirely different lenses. We’re relying on different ‘facts’.

In the same way our environment and the values of those who raise us shape our formative years, our daily ingestion of particular viewpoints cements our beliefs and values as adults.

Today, we can live on the same planet—maybe even next door—but in cyberspace, we can be polarised worlds apart.

In an admittedly simplistic view, as the machine learns what we like, it feeds us more of the same, and over time we start to forget that alternatives exist, or lack awareness as to how frequently or strongly these alternative perspectives may be held.

That’s why for many of us, it’s quite shocking that more than 70 million Americans chose to endorse the last four years of Trump’s presidency by voting for him in this election. For millions of others, it’s just as outrageous that he didn’t secure a second term.

This assumes—wrongly—that we have been fed the same information about Trump for the past four years. 

We haven’t.

It would seem the more connected we are to our digitised realities, the more segregated we, as people, are becoming.

And, if our realities are so disparate, is empathy even possible, let alone practical?

This was where the discussion got interesting at SPACE. While there was consensus that empathy was, of course, a wonderful tool when used well, and equally frightening when used to manipulate, it was hard to agree on whether empathy should be discouraged as a result, or if alternative thinking was needed.

We all agreed that for empathy to remain safe, relationships had to be connected in a genuine fashion—not simply through technology, but human to human.

It was also fascinating to look at empathy through alternative lenses. While many of us admitted we’d like to be considered to be empathetic, empathy itself has no moral or ethical basis. Unlike compassion, or kindness, empathy seeks to understand the world through another person’s point of view—it is not inherently good, moral or ethical.

This tension between what feels good and what is good raises more interesting and troubling questions. You see, studies show that we’re more likely to be empathetic to people who look like us, or who we consider beautiful.

This tendency for empathy to perpetuate racial bias, for example—albeit subconsciously—is yet another way empathy can be viewed as dangerous. 

When we consider how empathy might then impact institutions, such as the criminal justice system—where empathy-led aspects, such as victim impact statements, are having a very real impact on the sentences people receive—we have to wonder how our drive towards empathy could be perpetuating bias is a highly detrimental way.

As always, the intention to be good doesn’t always result in a good outcome. It makes you wonder, how much our need to feel good actually results in us doing good?

What’s wonderful about SPACE as an unconference is that it asks us to make space for such questions. Rather than demand answers, we have a safe space to ponder ideas and question our own thinking.

Afterall, how else will we evolve?

I want to thank the incredible people that joined in the discussion—and Cj Holden, Holly Ransom and Adam Ferrier for once again bringing us together. 

While we may not have the answers yet, we’ve found the space to ask the questions—and that’s a key first step.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: