The empathy deficit

The notes for this post – from the “Homeland‘s Carrie Mathison” school of working out a theory.
Recently, I’ve started giving James O’Brien’s show on LBC an occasional listen. I know I shouldn’t – it’s just another cosy nook in the liberal, left-wing echo chamber, really, let’s be honest. And I sometimes find myself wincing at his approach – he does like to verbally pummel his callers, even the ones who agree with him. But it’s just reassuring to have someone with such a public platform sounding as baffled as I am about this painful, protracted crisis of national identity we seem to be having.

On Wednesday morning, O’Brien set the topic for discussion as roughly: “what’s happened to us? As a nation, at what point did we begin glorifying callousness?”  He was referring specifically to the reportage surrounding Grenfell, and how some of the victims have been criticised – vilified, almost – for daring to decline the first offer of accommodation that was made to them. There’s an element of the public who’ve apparently taken the view that these people – who’ve lost all their worldly goods, as well as family members and friends – should just accept what they’re given, as if still being traumatised and uncertain is somehow unreasonable. The question, broadly speaking, was: how and when did we start losing our capacity for empathy?

My first thought was, well, that’s easy: right-wing tabloids and the rise of social media. Initially this post was going to be about the absolute Hell’s mouth that is below-the-line (BTL) comments on news articles and opinion pieces, and my inability to ignore these utter wastelands. (Honestly, I need a new tattoo: instead of the traditional “love” and “hate” across both knuckles, I need “don’t read” and “the comments” in tiny script on the backs of my hands.) I thought it was incredibly telling when at the end of last year, Vice announced they were getting rid of comments. I’m not a huge fan of Vice’s “look how scathing and edgy we are” vibe – I think we reached ‘peak snark’ about five years ago to be honest – but that’s neither here nor there. And it took me an embarrassingly long time to realise why I find The Pool such a calming, informative and friendly online space – there are no BTL comments.

I stick by this.

Anyway, on with the point. What comments sections and social media have in common is that they should both enable users to swap ideas and take in others’ perspectives, but what they actually do is give all the hardliners and hooligans a much bigger platform than they’d usually have encourage far more talking and bile-spewing than actual reading and thinking. In her piece on conspiracy theories, Gaby Hinsliff writes: “The internet’s magical power – that by expanding social circles to millions worldwide it allows the like-minded to find each other… is also its sickness. There is no belief so repellent that it cannot find an echo somewhere online, and feel normalised.”

The early days of the refugee crisis were what first showed the change in attitude – our government was slow to react, and when celebrities spoke out and expressed a desire for more help to be given, they were often accused of “virtue-signalling”. Which is an odd phrase in itself, and when used as an insult, often seems to amount to: “how dare you want to seem like a kind, compassionate person who is concerned about the welfare of others?” I remember writing at the time that it looked like a rather chilling failure of imagination, and some of the reactions to Grenfell have shown that we certainly haven’t got any better at creative thought since then.

During the First World War, 250,000 Belgian refugees came to the UK. 16,000 arrived at Folkestone on one day alone: 14th October 1914. It was a real point of honour for us as a nation – we were proud to welcome them. Savour this particular irony: in the early years of the 20th century, we thought our “open door” policy was one of the things that made us great. To quote Bernard Black: “don’t make me laugh… bitterly.”

Upshot number one is, therefore – we’re losing our ability to empathise because of some of the more shrill, hysterical right-wing elements of the media, and also because social media has trained us to think we must all have pithy, quick-fire opinions on absolutely everything. There is no space for nuance, no time for “well, it’s a bit like this and a bit like that”. Our knee-jerk reactions have become more like flick-knife responses.

But then something else occurred to me – something a bit more pretentious and probably bonkers; it’s entirely possible I’ve never been as wrong as I’m about to be. But I came up with this on the bus home from work, and on the journey between Uckfield and Brighton, there’s bugger-all else to do except ponder.

What if something else is contributing to this empathy deficit? What if part of it can be explained by the way that, over the last few years  and thanks in no small part to the introduction and hiking of tuition fees – arts subjects have been dismissed as airy-fairy, non-essential and merely nice-to-haves?

Wait, come back. I can explain. I studied Literature first, then Linguistics. Literature immerses you in stories, directly engages your imagination, and trains you to look for themes. Linguistics teaches you to look for patterns. Languages, funnily enough, give you a more global mindset, and take you right into the heart of other lands and cultures. History is another subject that makes you look for patterns and connections, and gives you the tools to “zoom out” on the world and see what’s happened before, time and time again. It’s psychology on a grand scale. Arts like drama, film, music, design and fine art all require imagination and the ability to tell stories. Which means getting out of your own head, your own life, and into other people’s. What does empathy depend on? Imagination.

And no matter what you study, higher education teaches you to consider many different viewpoints on the same issue. You have to construct, present and counter not just your own argument, but any others you can think of. Which, again, means stepping out of your own lane and travelling  in someone else’s for a bit.

It’s strange then, to be part of the generation that was raised on the idea that university was the key, the golden gates, and to now find that being educated and able to say “well, hang on a minute, this is quite complex” makes you an “enemy of the people”. It’s a bit of a puzzle that Government ministers can say things like “we’ve had enough of experts” and “those who don’t benefit from a university education shouldn’t have to pay for those who do” and still expect to be in a job the following morning. One of the Brexit dividing lines was levels of education. University graduates were more likely to vote Remain.

Because I’m a glutton for punishment, I watched the Brexit episode of Wife Swap. I so wanted the Leave voters to be portrayed differently to how most other Leave voters have been portrayed in the media. I was really hoping to be shown another side to the debate; I was really keen to hear the clever, well-reasoned Leave position, whatever that may be. Whether it was biased editing or simply what actually happened, it never came. I was so naive. The whole thing was summed up for me when the Leave-voting husband tried to argue with the Remain-voting wife: “this is the thing!” he exclaimed in frustration. “You’ve got facts, and I don’t!”

We badly need facts right now, and to face them unflinchingly – but we also need flights of fancy that put us in the shoes of others. Without empathy, and without the imagination that fuels it, we’re going to end up a cold, lonely little island, bitterly divided. It’s a predictable argument for a sort-of writer to make, but: stories are the key here. Other people’s stories are as important as our own.

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