Empathy at odds with hyper-individualism

posted by Jeff | Sunday, September 13, 2020, 11:20 AM | comments: 0

As research and study around the pandemic continues to occur, one of the recurring areas of interest is why the United States has had such poor outcomes relative to other industrial nations. The observations usually have to do with the fact that the US is culturally more individualistic and less authoritarian than places like China. This certainly has some broken implications to it, and we've seen that in the way that some treat mask wearing as a political issue. A pandemic is somewhat unique among problems because it's not one that is solved without exercising some empathy toward others and a common good.

That got me to thinking, is this the reason that empathy does not come easily to Americans? Yes, I want to attribute it to selfishness and narcissism, and it's probably those things too, but the individualism covers a lot more ground. Take the angle on racism, for example. I ask how is it not the most vile of things, but extreme individualism makes it easy enough to not see it as your problem if you're white.

This can be applied to a great many things that make empathy impossible. If you're not an immigrant fleeing an oppressive regime, the humanitarian crisis isn't your problem. If you eat every day, hunger isn't a problem. If you have a job, unemployment isn't a problem. If you have health insurance, healthcare costs aren't your problem. If you have a neuro-typical child, the needs of a kid with ASD aren't your problem.

But why do people lack empathy about these issues? I'll be the first to admit that the world can be a shit show, and you can't solve all of the problems, but I'm not suggesting we all have to solve all the problems. What I am saying is that we should be sensitive to the fact that they exist, and others struggle and may need help. There are two nearly universal truths about all of this adversity: One, yes, the existence of this adversity does not affect you. Two, mitigating the adversity also does not likely affect you. With this reality, lacking empathy frankly makes you not the best kind of human.

Walking a mile in the shoes of others doesn't mean you have to give up anything about yourself or your lifestyle, unless you want to. Everyone has their own things to deal with, and often your own situation is the result of little more than the birth lottery. It's not lost on me that I have enjoyed certain advantages by being born a white, hetero male born into a Christian family in America. It's my belief that this comes with certain responsibilities, not to preserve my way of life, which is virtually guaranteed anyway, but to figure out how I can improve the lives of others.

I can't solve racism alone, but if others can join me in being empathetic about the situation, it can change. This is true of nearly every problem we face as a society. If we position our lives in a way that only benefits ourselves, history has shown over and over again that the inequities of people destabilize and destroy societies. Do we really have to make those mistakes again? It's not a zero-sum game... improving the lives of others does not come at our expense.


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