The Cost of Empathy

A photo from the Portland Rose Garden

‘Sup, blogonauts.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how difficult it is to be a good person — that is, to be the kindest you can be, to truly examine the repercussions of all of your actions and change the behaviors that are harmful. Sometimes your actions hurt someone else even though you don’t intend them to. It might not even cross your mind that saying or doing any given thing could affect anyone else at all. But that doesn’t change the fact that it does.

It’s hard to be good.

Opening yourself up to someone else to empathize with them is an emotional risk. It seems to me that people find it easier to remain indifferent than to take that risk to be kind to someone else. I feel it myself. We’ve somehow built a society where kindness requires extra effort. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is.

One manifestation of this that has been getting more attention in popular media and online Discourse™ lately is hurtful language and small behaviors in an interpersonal setting. Microagressions, if you will. These come in all kinds of packages, whether it be sexism and the #MeToo movement, racism, anti-queer or anti-trans sentiment, classism, ableism, and on and on.

I think it’s good that we’re talking about these things more now. I think it’s good to try to be more aware of the people around you and show them the common decency of considering their feelings, listening to them if you screw up, and not making it all about yourself with a knee-jerk reply that you meant no offense and they’re being too sensitive.

That’s probably the first thing to come to mind when I talk about empathy, and I think it’s important. Not just with -isms, but on any kind of individual level. It’s good to be good. Treat others how you want to be treated. So on and so forth.

There’s another way to express empathy that we don’t talk about as much, though, and I think we need to.

Let’s start with something small. Say, about 3 by 5 inches, give or take.

Do you own a smart phone?

I do. If you’re reading this, chances are that you do too. You might even be reading these words on the screen of your phone right now. If not a phone, you may have a computer or some other kind of consumer electronic device.

Have you ever thought about how it came to be in your possession?

What was its journey from little baby electronic device components to motherboard? Were the rare metals in the chip unearthed by child laborers working in dangerous mines under the yoke of a warlord in the Congo? Did the profits that warlord made off of those mineral sales go to fueling an ongoing cycle of violence that’s destabilized an entire region for decades? Was it then assembled by factory workers in China over 12-hour days with no bathroom breaks, paid a pittance for their service? How about after that — are the retail workers at their USA stores and phone help staffers in India paid a living wage? Do they get healthcare?

It’s a lot to consider! It’s a hell of a lot easier to let all that slip past your notice and just enjoy the sleek aesthetic of a blank screen backed by a smooth, white shell. None of it affects you. It takes enough effort to sift through memory card and camera specs, and those are the things that your phone company wants you to look at. And phones and electronics are far from the only culprits, here. We don’t know where our stuff comes from anymore.

That is what I mean when I say it’s hard to be good.

The cost of empathy is not just the risk you take when you open yourself emotionally to another human being on an interpersonal level. It’s not just the bruised ego of ridicule or rejection, although, yes, it is also those things, and those things do matter.

The fact of the matter is that whether we like it or not, whether we meant to or not, we’ve built a world up around us that imposes a tangible monetary cost to empathizing with the people involved in producing conveniences that we take for granted every single day. The emotional cost of looking at our phones and feeling guilty now that we realize other people have been hurt to get this cool gadget into our hands? That is the literal definition of a first world problem.

But here’s the part where I urge further empathy.

Empathy with ourselves, the problematic consumers.

Note that I’m not asking for empathy from the abused miner or factory worker — that’s a big ask, an unreasonable one. I am asking for those of us who realize that we’ve unwittingly taken part in a system that harms others to stop ourselves from a knee-jerk emotional shutdown.

Nothing good comes from that.

That’s the path to absolutism and powerlessness. “I can’t fix the problem, so it doesn’t matter what I do, anyway.” That isn’t true!

I realize I may seem self-righteous, or like I’m standing on a digital soapbox chastising all of you out there. After all, who am I to say these things? I am typing them on a computer right now. To some, that makes me a hypocrite. My opinion means nothing if I’m not willing to put my money where my mouth is by completely disentangling myself from the slightest hint of the problems I’m mentioning here.

Y’know what? I’m gonna bet whoever’s saying those things isn’t doing any better at it than I am. That’s the emotional shutdown I’m talking about, and it’s a pretty weak excuse to avoid looking at the problem. The argument generally goes that if I pretend to care, I need to either 100% fix my contributions or shut up. That’s not proposing a better solution or alternative — it’s a silencing tactic. It’s the opposite of empathy. It doesn’t fix anything. And, frankly, it’s a shitty way to treat other people.

I don’t claim to be any better than anyone else for thinking about these things. What I’m trying to do is take a hard look at myself and try to do better. To say, okay, here’s where I stand right now. I’m not going to beat myself up about things that I’ve done when I didn’t know better because I can’t change the past. I am going to do my best to practice empathy with the other human beings in the world and make choices in the future that reduce harm, even if only by a little bit, and even if I will undoubtedly mess it up sometimes.

If you can do better than that, then with all sincerity: good for you. Really. Please tell me what you’re doing so that I can learn from it.

For the rest of us….

Yes, the world is messed up. Unless you’re really willing to make good on cutting all ties with modern society and running off into the woods, you can’t avoid buying into abusive systems at some level. To exist in the global economy is to be morally compromised. Sorry, them’s the breaks.

That doesn’t mean we can’t try to make things better. Maybe you can afford to stop purchasing a product with labor abuses in its supply chain, or switch from a particularly bad company to a slightly better one. Even if all you can do is write a letter to a business or government representative to express your concerns, that’s better than nothing. Let them know that these issues are on your mind when you decide where to send your money or your vote.

Over the last week many large and influential companies have divested from the NRA as a result of consumer backlash. That won’t fix the problem of gun violence in America. Not immediately. Not by a long shot. But it’s a step in the right direction, and it matters. We can seize on that step to build the momentum needed to make a larger difference.

Change can happen. You do have power. We have power together.

But before you do anything else, there’s one crucial step that’s non-negotiable: you have to care.

Step one?

It’s empathy.

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