Most Americans want basically the same things: general prosperity, a reasonably well-educated populace that is steadily becoming healthier, a responsive government that is neither bloated nor corrupt, a social environment that is both safe and free and a sustainable natural environment. However, the political arena through which most of this must be achieved is now so hopelessly divided that our chances of attaining and sustaining these ends are next to nil. The culprit nourishing these divisions is an almost total lack of human empathy on a society level.
Politicians, members of the media and ordinary citizens passed beyond self-serving selfishness a long time ago. Now our nation’s politics are driven by people at all ends of the political spectrum who range from being willfully insensitive to boldly contemptuous toward anyone with whom they disagree. Most are anesthetized to the problems, sufferings or even needs and concerns of just about anyone else.
According to a recent study from Michigan State University, America’s empathy is on the decline, now ranking No. 7 in the world. The number of young Americans who will never marry continues to rise. Volunteering is at its lowest rate since the Labor Department began measuring it in 2002. More than 30 percent of school children report they have been bullied, up 24 percent from 10 years ago. Lack of empathy in America extends far beyond the political arena.
Although we should be concerned about the lack of empathy in every dimension of our lives, our major concern should be about its lack in the political sphere. The disdain people have for those who don’t share their views is beyond worrisome. It has led to complete nonexistence of bi-partisan political debate or collaborative problem solving.
It has been a long time since debates about important issues have been driven primarily by compassion for human suffering. Debates on such issues as health care and immigration reform have long been devoid of any meaningful assessments regarding the impact of various decisions on individuals and families. People would rather insult those with whom they disagree rather than debate serious policy that might lead to lasting solutions.
Opinion columnists (like me) see it all the time. Only a small percentage of people who disagree with my opinions take the time to formulate a reasonable rebuttal. Most simply attack me personally and the attacks completely lack empathy. I’m regularly accused of being unpatriotic, although I’m a lifetime disabled vet who served my country honorably in combat and love this country more than most. I’ve also been called racist, although I have track record of fighting for equal opportunity since the early 1970s. I could go on, but this is not about me. It is about how people would rather attack me and people like me, than learn who I am as a person and join in my efforts to make the world a better place.
Unfortunately, given America’s mood today, people are drawn to discourse that is uncivil and even rude. Whether online, on TV (cable or broadcast), talk radio, or in political campaigns, the almost complete lack of empathy is blatant. Hardly anyone is interested in calming down, considering what it is like to walk in another’s shoes, or to even mildly entertain the notion that someone else may feel the way they do for valid reasons. Too many Americans thrive on outrage, angry passion and personal insults.
If we hope to achieve the ideals listed in my opening sentence then we must insist on and participate in an empathic assessment of the world’s challenges as well as what responses are appropriate.
Lyles, a Poway resident, is a management consultant and best-selling author. Reader comments, though letters to the editor, are encouraged. They may now be composed online or can be emailed to [email protected]