The End of Empathy
My brother’s 32nd birthday is today. It’s an especially emotional day for his family because he’s not alive for it. He died of a heroin overdose last February.
This year is even harder than the last. I started weeping at midnight and eventually cried myself to sleep. Today’s symptoms include explosions of sporadic sobbing and an insurmountable feeling of emptiness. My mom posted a gut-wrenching comment on my brother’s Facebook page about the unfairness of it all. Her baby should be here, not gone. “Where is the God that is making us all so sad?” she asked.
In response, someone — a stranger/(I assume) another human being — commented with one word: “Junkie.”
Let’s give this whole thing some context: this one word was posted in response to a comment posted by my mother on the Facebook page of her only son on his would-be birthday had he not died at thirty years old of a heroin overdose less than two years ago.
I replied to his comment that it was a rather insensitive thing to say given the circumstances. My husband posted something similar. Others were equally disturbed. They told him how fucked up he was. They called on him to apologize.
His lack of empathy is compounded by the fact that, according to my cursory Facebook sleuthing, this guy has two young kids of his own.
In elementary school, a laminated copy of the Golden Rule was tacked to every teacher’s bulletin board: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It’s the sum total of what I remember about childhood decency. It guilted me every time I did some mean kid shit like refusing to share my toys or excluding someone on the playground.
These days, kids go online to do mean kid shit. Adults obviously do, too. Our screens give us carte blanche to be shittier to each other than we’d ever be IRL. For example, if I were to look a grieving mother in the face and call her dead son a “junkie,” I’d likely see her receive the information and be affected by it in some way. Maybe she’d flinch or squirm or blink rapidly or fall to pieces. This is called a social cue. In real life, they dictate our next move. They make us either want to keep going or know when it’s time to stop. They can be verbal or nonverbal, positive or negative. They come packaged in facial expression, body language, and tone of voice.
Online, we don’t have access to social cues. There’s no one on the receiving end of our jabs and tirades and vitriol. All we see are words on a screen in a text box. Empathy is null and void.
Sometimes, I write things down that I think and feel and post them on the internet. Maybe you like to cook food or hunt animals or kick a ball around a field. I like to do this. And, when I do — when I share my personal experience of being a human being in the world which is just generally hard — someone inevitably attacks me for doing it “wrong.”
For the record: I think this is totally reasonable. We all do life differently. Hooray for choices and opinions! Let’s all do our respective things as we choose to do them since we only get one shot as far as we know. My entire world view is based on a genuine belief in personal freedom and autonomy. I just don’t understand why we have to obliterate each other in the process. Debate is reasonable. Being a fucking asshole is not.
I wrote a piece recently on our toddler’s fairly unrestricted TV time. The main idea was, yeah, she watches lots of TV but she also does lots of other stuff and it’s working out just fine for us. Granted, it was a post on parenting and posts on parenting, especially those related to being a mother, are an automatic invitation to slaughter. Other mothers are especially cruel. One mother responded: “So you are a lazy parent with no foresight into the future. Certainly explains how we are getting YET ANOTHER GENERATION of mediocre zombies. Glad my kids didn’t have you. You can’t control a toddler.”
In a way, I admire her. Such authority! I can’t fathom ever feeling confident enough in my own parenting choices to bash someone else for theirs.
The thing is, I don’t just see this sort of knee-jerk jerky commentary when I post something trivial about parenting. I see hate-posting on things that seem unfuckwithable.
My daughter was born with permanent hearing loss. I wrote an article for the Houston Chronicle last June detailing our losing battle in the Texas Legislature to pass a bill that would require insurance companies to pay for children’s hearing aids. They currently don’t and are considered “cosmetic” and cost up to $6,000 out of pocket every 3–5 years. In the article, I briefly mention that hearing loss is often genetic, so many families have multiple children in need of this technology and that financial burden is heavy.
In the comments section, a sweet soul named paigeplanter2 posted: “If it is genetic DON’T HAVE CHILDREN!!!” Then, another commenter echoed her sentiments: “That is what I was thinking, adopt.”
Thank you both for your extremely useful feedback. You’re right. I clearly should have never had my healthy, beautiful, sweet, hilarious, smart, lovable, perfect two year old because she has hearing loss. Every other person in the history of the world is genetically perfect. What a bummer for us.
Speaking of bummers, a few months after my brother died, Entertainment Weekly and other media outlets released his autopsy online before his family was ever notified. Thousands of people flocked to various comment threads to stress that “he deserved it” and “what an idiot” and “didn’t this happen months ago???” Oh, and, my personal favorite: “Anyone who sticks a needle in their arm deserves to die and elicits no sympathy from me.”
You are correct, person on Facebook: there is truly no sympathy from you. No bad things will ever happen to you. You will never experience pain and suffering. Your life will always be as it is: idyllic. Continue to sprawl out on your puffy white cloud eating cotton candy and grapes from the vine as you look down on the rest of us. Rest assured, you are in excellent company!
According to a Washington Post article from January 2016, Lenny Pozner, the grieving father of a six year old boy who was murdered at Sandy Hook in 2012, is now being harassed online by people who believe the “tragedy was an elaborate hoax designed to increase support for gun control.”
In the article, Susan Svrluga reports that “Pozner said he gets ugly comments often on social media, such as, ‘Eventually you’ll be tried for your crimes of treason against the people,’ ‘… I won’t be satisfied until the caskets are opened…’ and ‘How much money did you get for faking all of this?”
The abuse has been so brutal that Pozner founded a victims’ rights group to bring awareness to this issue. The beginning of their mission statement reads:
Families in grief have the right to do so in peace and dignity. Regrettably, victims families are being cheated out of this basic human dignity, and being subjected to unspeakable harassment on an ongoing basis.
It goes without saying, BUT THIS SHIT IS INSANE. No one should endure the horrific loss of a child — period. Ask my mother. But, to then have to deal with the irrational wrath of online sociopaths? This is the shit that makes me want to dig a hole in the ground, climb in, and stay put forever.
A few months ago, President Obama shed some tears on TV as he reflected on the 26 children and teachers who died at Sandy Hook — Noah Pozner being one of them — and how little has been done since then to curb gun violence. Instead of seeing empathy and compassion, many saw manipulation and politics. It was yet another polarizing moment. People took to the internet and conservative media outlets to admonish him for his “performance:” For example, the author of a particularly thoughtful piece titled FUCK YOU OBAMA wrote: “All of a sudden, in true PROGRESSIVE PLAYBOOK fashion, he trots out the dead kids of Sandy Hook like the pimp he is to advance his gun control agenda, thinking FAKE tears are a nice touch for his lapdog lamestream media. GOD IS WATCHING, YOU COCKSUCKING SCUM.”
A question, sir: is it so far fetched that the father of two school-aged daughters would feel empathy for 26 slain children and their families? Couldn’t they just as easily have been yours or mine? Isn’t this what empathy is? Putting myself in someone else’s shoes with the knowledge and awareness that I, too, am human and, therefore, susceptible to this tragedy or any number of tragedies along the way?
Maybe people are just shitty. Or maybe it’s the internet’s fault. Or maybe people are just shitty and it’s the internet’s fault.
Regardless, it’s time to resurrect the Golden Rule. Let’s all take a breath, shake it off, and declare a do-over. Let’s start listening to each other, especially when we disagree. Let’s value our differences instead of vilifying each other for them. Let’s be inclusive and kind. Let’s be compassionate and empathetic to the plights of others. Let’s be human beings. Because we’re never going to get anywhere if we continue to treat each other like garbage.
A wise man who I loved very much once said: “Let’s stop finding a new witch of the week and burning them at the stake. We are all horrible and wonderful and figuring it out.”
This notably bizarre thing happened after I posted that article about my kid watching too much TV. I’d never seen anything like it. Another mom wrote a relatively harsh comment about my piece that was just dripping in judgement. My knee-jerk was to add fuel, to spar back, to cuss her out, to tell her how wrong SHE was. But, instead, I wanted to see what would happen if I actually tried to hear her out and respond respectfully.
I thanked her for sharing her experience but confessed that her comment made me feel really terrible. I told her she sounded like a great mom and provided specific examples of what I perceived to be her parenting strengths. I let her know I actually agreed with many of her points. But, I reiterated what works for our family. I reassured her that my daughter is the center of my world; that when my brother died, she saved me and my parents from drowning in utter despair. I explained that she is our hope and light and reason to keep marching on. I thanked her again for taking the time to respond to my essay and wished her and her family all the best.
She responded quickly, thanking me for connecting with her personally. She said it was an honor to engage in a dialogue with me. She said my daughter sounds amazing, loving and compassionate. She confessed that being a parent is the hardest job EVER.
And then she apologized.
“In hindsight I probably should have softened the wording of my comment. My intention was not to hurt (I’m truly sorry for that), but to defend childhood and I see we’re very much on the same page!”
After I reached out to her personally, she’d taken the time to read another piece I’d posted about the turbulent weeks and months following my brother’s death. She wished me peace and closure as I approached his yahrzeit. She told me words could not express the sadness she felt as she read my article:
“A reminder to cherish the ones we love and work towards making this world a better place for us all.”
That same day, she friended me on Facebook.