“Empathy and good feelings can make the Internet a better and safer place for everyone,” writes N.C. Harrison.
I have written, recently, on the importance of empathy in developing human relationships. This is a powerful force, much more than affinity or even stronger bonds of affection, because it is neither transient nor rooted in the particulars of a person, event, interest or issue. Empathy, unlike sympathy, also does not require agreement. Sympathy, after all, means that one is of the same feeling as the one who is sympathized with; empathy, on the other hand, merely means that one feels along with another person, taking viewpoints and emotions which may be alien or even inimical and working to understand them as if they had originated with the thinker’s own self. Empathy, more than wisdom or strength, is the quality which allows us to exist alongside one another in a more or less (usually less, as this virtue fails as often as any other) civilized fashion.
One can see empathy, and its failure, in a number of recent scandals and controversies. The name, logo and general image of the Washington Redskins football team, for example, causes great upset and psycho-emotional injury to certain people, especially those of Native descent. The reasons for this should be pretty obvious as the term has been used as a racial slur for a few centuries now, and piles casual abuse upon the already heartily abused communities of Indigenous Americans. Even if they are not self-evident, however, a thinking man or woman should probably be able to say, “I would be upset, at the very least, at an organization which was named after an insulting term for myself.” A man named Kyle, for example, would likely be displeased at a team called the “Big, Fat, Ugly, Stupid Kyles.” This imaginary leap would allow for one to grow in understanding of the needs and concerns of others and, possibly, come to a place where his or her consciousness might be changed.
Another instance where this has come up, lately, lies in the Twitter comments made by Jessa Duggar after her visit to the Holocaust Museum and the response to it from many quarters, notably from the website Jezebel which is, at the very least, the first place that I saw the story. Miss Duggar, who seems to be an innocent, wide-eyed and soft hearted young woman, reacted to the Holocaust Museum like any reasonable human being might. She was shocked and appalled at how people would subject others to harm based on their race, religious affiliation or status of physical ability. All of this, presumably, would not annoy even a critic of the Duggar family
She made the mistake, however, of stating that she believed that the theory of evolution had led to the Holocaust while including the “pre-born” or “unborn” among her list of vulnerable persons. The first of these is not linked quite as strongly as her homeschool textbooks would like to make seem obvious (although there was a fairly high tide of Social Darwinism and eugenics washing all kinds of dangerous people up on shore in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), and conveniently ignores literally centuries of Catholic anti-Semitism in Europe. The second is the controversial statement, and what truly broke a tide of fury against the poor girl in both a furious non-article by Isha Aran and the many cruel comments that followed.
And yet… Miss Duggar is being excoriated for something that she did not actually say or write. She did not, as the clickbait title (“Oh God, Jessa Duggar Just Compared the Holocaust to Abortion”) cheerfully blares, equate the Holocaust with abortion in the United States. She merely included the “unborn” or “pre-born,” especially those who were revealed by in utero scans to be handicapped, in her list of persons, groups or things that might be considered vulnerable to the predacious activities of pernicious persons. The author was so intent on winning cheap points with her readers by insulting Miss Duggar that she did not bother to actually reflect the truth of her statement. This is a failure of empathy on the most basic level… she was so unwilling to feel alongside Miss Duggar, to recognize her humanity with goodwill, that she was unable to even be angry for accurate reasons.
This is not to say that I agree wholeheartedly with Miss Duggar’s assessments. I mean, yeah, fetuses are objectively pretty vulnerable, but that’s kind of beside the point. The motivations of the women who undergo abortions are so far removed from the motivations of those who carried out the extermination of more than eleven million people in Europe that that the difference between day and night does not adequately cover the issue. This is, perhaps, day on earth and night on a totally different planet on the other side of the galaxy where living pieces of music ride horses made out of the quantum entanglement of spooky action at a distance. It reflects a failure, or maybe misdirection, of empathy on the part of Miss Duggar. That’s a little bit okay, though, because she’s at least trying to feel in the right direction and has her heart in the right place, even if it’s pointed a little bit in the wrong direction. With the right kind of contextual education she would develop her empathetic reflections (not just emotional, affective reactions) as effectively a little duckling does swimming skills.
The Internet is an ugly, often awful place. From the folks who launched death threats at Zoe Quinn to the mothers who have used fake Myspace profiles to lure tween girls into killing themselves, it’s pretty much like the Wild West and Thunderdome had a sociopathic, fanged baby out there. Penny Arcade ran a great comic on it, referencing Youtube comments, which posited that “a normal person+anonymity+an audience=a total and complete fuckwad.” John Suler called it the “Online Disinhibition Effect” in his article, but I saw it first on Gabe and Tycho’s site and their pungent wording drove the whole concept home for me. Maybe, however, this doesn’t always have to be true, maybe it just often is… maybe we can make the world a better place (or at least the Web) and actually have nice things. I don’t often lend much credence to revolutions which claim to be carried out by good feelings, but maybe this really is one. Or, at the very least, by feeling in the right way.