Thursday, February 9, 2012

Compassion: Yet Another Endangered Species?

I’ve been reading Ian Parker’s “The Story of a Suicide: Two College Roommates, a Webcam, and a Tragedy,” a New Yorker article about the Rutgers freshman who jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge, leading strangers to jump to conclusions about his motivation. The author includes numerous e-mails and text messages that the players in this drama exchanged, and I was struck again and again by a common theme in their banter: compassion. Or, rather, a lack of it.

I realize these exchanges were private and written in techno-haste by kids who easily fall prey to the rhythm of peer-bashing—us vs. them. But words impart meaning and if used repeatedly, become a kind of truth. Homosexuals weren’t their only target. The kids expressed disdain for violinists, computer illiterates, people of inferior intelligence, people who don’t have Gmail addresses, and, most especially, poor people.

Poor people?

I thought I knew what I was up against in my mission to generate compassion for animals from the general population. But this New Yorker article indicated a societal mindset foreign to me.

As I related my concern to my husband, he found “What, Me Care? Young Are Less Empathetic” by Jamil Zaki. It’s a summary in Scientific American of long-term studies conducted on empathy in humans—how we apply it and how we think about it. In the U.S. college population, empathy has been on the decline in the last decade.

After watching the Super Bowl ads and halftime show this past weekend, I can understand why. It seems as if harshness and snarkiness and loudness are easy to come by in the media; for softness and kindness and quiet, we have to actively search for examples. All too often, most of us take whatever comes to us. I thought this indicated that our emotional world is out of balance with our multimedia world, especially for younger generations. For compassion to gain importance, we simply have to try harder to achieve equilibrium.

Then I read the comments to the Scientific American article. Here’s one that stands out:

“Perhaps low empathy levels could be improved if people were given the time and space to find each other interesting. … If it were somehow necessary for people to depend on the kindness of strangers, they might find reasons to care about them.”

Ah, it all makes sense now. If poor people could just be more interesting, they might rouse compassion from others. Poor people (like exploited animals) vie for our attention in the same media muddle as do displays of glamour, sexuality, affluence, athleticism, and trendiness. Is this a level playing field? How can we make society’s invisible more interesting?

I was about to give up on humans until I read this in Poetry magazine:

“If I can only be horrified by my species, then I will have to kill myself. If I find others recognizable, I guess I will continue. It’s as simple as that.”
Fanny Howe

I guess it is as simple as that. I must do what I can as I can. I urge you to do the same.

One difference between empathic individuals (children and adults) and
those with little compassion: Those who read more fiction have more empathy.

[Pics from top to bottom from Dog Files, Have Dog Blog Will Travel, and Dog Eat Dogma.]

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