Empathy and the Societal Contract


After the most recent school shooting in Santa Fe, a reporter asked one of the survivors whether she thought, at any point during the attack, “This isn’t real. This could not happen at my school.” Her answer, said with her head hung in numbed devastation, is tragically indicative of the current state of American society.

CURRY: There wasn’t… It’s been happening everywhere. I’ve always felt it would eventually happen here too.

Abhorrent as this sentiment may seem, it is a truth about American life that I have heard echoed by friends and family alike. It is near-impossible to go a single day without the fear that today might be the day someone guns down you or your child or your classroom. And it’s not hysteria, either; it’s justified: the Santa Fe shooting was the 101st mass shooting in 2018 alone.

Arguing for any measure of gun control seems futile. After the Parkland shooting, it was encouraging to see places like Dick’s banning the sale of assault weapons, but it is evident that our Republican-led Congress has no real intention of doing anything that actually matters or helps American citizens in any way. For a bunch of pro-life fanatics, they sure don’t seem to give a shit about keeping living, breathing Americans alive.

This problem we have with violence and apathy extends beyond mass shootings. From healthcare to the homeless, we have adopted a very dangerous mindset that suggests if something doesn’t affect us directly, it’s not our problem. But this lack of compassion for others is in absolute opposition to the foundation of any great and truly successful society: empathy.

I’m not merely suggesting here that empathy is the key to solving all of society’s problems. Sure, certainly a greater empathy for our fellow Americans would undoubtedly help us work through a bunch of the bullshit we’ve built up over the years. What I’m actually suggesting, though, goes deeper than that: empathy isn’t just a Good Thing; it’s intrinsically tied up in the societal contract.

I’m not the first person to talk about what it means to live in a society, but let’s break it down anyway: a society is “a body of individuals living as members of a community.” A pretty simplistic definition, to be sure, as we know each society can be vastly different from one another. But regardless of the idiosyncrasies of each community, the basic make-up of society depends upon the fact that, in order for a society to even exist, it must have members. Which is to say you, sitting alone in your room twiddling your thumbs, are not a society. But if Bob joins you in your room and your thumb-twiddling, then sure, yeah, you can be the society of Thumb Twiddlers.

The thing about needing other people in your group to create a society, however, is that it means, if you choose to join a community, you have to be invested in the other members of said community. If you’re not, then you’re just that dick walking in on meetings with loud interruptions while everybody else is trying to get shit done.

That’s what I mean by societal contract: you get a community that takes care of you but in turn, you must invest yourself in the other members of the community. Otherwise the whole thing just falls apart.

Open on America, 2018. A place where, due to our inability to empathize with one another, society is very much falling apart.

Empathy’s actually been a pretty big topic in recent decades, both casually and professionally. Probably because in the 1970s, some Italian scientists found, through a group of experiments, that monkeys had what they called “mirror neurons,” which lit up in exactly the same way when a monkey performed an action and when it watched another monkey perform the same action.

This could have pretty cool implications about the brain and about empathy, if only we could actually prove that the same neurons exist in the human brain. But research about that is hardly vast, though many scientists offer plenty of conjecture about what this could indicate about human psychology.

Regardless, even only using casual observation, it’s easy to see that human nature is empathetic. It’s what moves us to give money to the homeless, causes you to cry when you see someone else crying, and makes you recoil when someone else gets hurt. That crushing feeling in your chest when you see someone else in pain? That’s your empathy. While sympathy allows you to feel bad for another individual, it’s empathy that allows you to feel the feelings of another person without losing a sense of your own emotional life.

Even though empathy is a totally natural response to the world, America’s having a real struggle with it. From school shootings to Paul Ryan’s lifelong devotion to an absolutely cruel healthcare plan, it’s obvious we’re having a crisis of empathy. Just take a look at Trump: anybody with a shred of empathetic capability would feel horrible for making fun of a disabled reporter, but Trump seems unable to produce remorse at all.

It’s anybody’s guess as to why such a lack of empathy abounds, but if you ask me, I lay all the blame on the unchecked system of capitalism we currently have in place, tied up with America’s long-held devotion to individualism.

The capitalist dream of the United States goes like this: if you work hard enough, you, too, can become successful. It speaks little of the progress of the nation as a whole, or the ways your contribution can enrich American society.

American capitalism, in particular, does little more than make us into self-conscious egomaniacs. Everywhere you look, there are ads upon ads highlighting all the ways you, personally, have failed to be perfect, and all the ways you, personally, can make yourself more productive, more beautiful, more successful. Pick up any women’s magazine and you’ll see at least a dozen articles listing twenty different products focused on helping the reader lose weight. Targeting the individual, of course, sells products, but the focus ends there.

Before reaching this particular era of “late-stage capitalism,” the United States had already begun to focus on individualism. Emerson, Thoreau, Cather — writers of the nineteenth century were obsessed with the idea.

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. — “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson

It’s a beautiful sentiment, to trust the inner-workings of one’s heart. Throughout his essay, Emerson rails quite a bit against conformity, which certainly isn’t a bad suggestion. Individualism itself neither is inherently evil, and undoubtedly it’s still a core ideal of American society. The problem lies with individualism untempered by investment in community engagement.

This is where American capitalism does its best work: in exacerbating our obsession with individualism, capitalism drives American citizens further and further apart. Narratives about the individual become less about personal success and more about you vs. everybody else. We see this in action everywhere across the United States: from working-class white people terrified that immigrants will “steal their jobs,” to resentment against the homeless who supposedly haven’t done enough to support themselves, to conservatives who don’t want to pay into the tax system for something from which they won’t see direct, daily benefits. The more obsessed we become with our own individual experience, the less we’re able to care about anyone else. And if we don’t care about our fellow Americans, then we cease to be a functioning society; we’re just assholes screaming at each other.

Without a new focus on empathy, there’s only one place I can imagine America heading: into oblivion. Whether it takes a hundred years or ten, our disdain for one another will cause our downfall — in mass shootings, wildly expensive health crises, or starvation, we will not survive if we cannot care about each other.

A key component in unlearning such contempt will, inevitably, be the eradication of capitalism. In a country where 1% of its citizens have 40% of its wealth, survival alone takes up a Herculean amount of energy for most, leaving little time to think of anything or anyone else. In order to necessitate our survival, capitalism must be replaced by a system that encourages and benefits community on par with the individual.

But that’s not a task done overnight. Until then, it is our duty, as, perhaps ironically, individuals, to spend our days looking up. When you feel that crushing pang in your chest, think of it as a call to action. Give money to the homeless and allow them the dignity of spending it however they wish. If you see someone in trouble, ask them if they need help. Educate yourself on the struggles of an immigrant in America before casting them as the enemy. Engage yourself in American society wherever you can.

Or you can take a page out of Thoreau’s book and just go live in the woods and never talk to anybody. The choice is yours.

Feminist thinker, professional gossip, and Crabby Babe™

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