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Our Never-Ending Empathy for Everything Is Backfiring

Here’s what to try instead.

A shadow of a person looking in a shattered mirror with the Twitter logo on it.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Chepko/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

A few years ago, I began to observe that the bulk of criticism I got was not about work I had actually done, or words I had in fact written, but about that which I wasn’t saying, or doing. “This was a very interesting piece, but it didn’t cite to my scholarship,” was an early and benign version of the critique, but it quickly escalated to: “The experience you write of does not reflect my own experience, and thus you are bad.”

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This phenomenon happens in person occasionally, but it is much, much more prevalent online. On social media, we call one another out for the issues about which we had failed to post and the breaking scandals on which we hadn’t yet weighed in. “I can’t believe you gave a speech about X and didn’t mention Y” becomes a standard denunciation as does “I am horrified by your silence on Z.” I recently received an enraged response to a pro forma, vanilla, out-of-office response, from someone insisting that my being offline and writing a book was a pretext for ignoring his email.  At that point I briefly contemplated changing my out-of-office response to say, merely, “Hi. It’s not about you.”

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It is one thing to be exhausted, depleted, and fearful after 18 months of a pandemic, brutal racial injustice, climate panic, and global political instability. It is quite another thing to be expected to embody pitch-perfect emotional responses to each one of those things instantaneously online. But, of course, our interconnected digital world means that everything everyone else does can always be construed as being wholly about us. Every public word or deed sweeps in a whole world of words unsaid and deeds undone. COVID and its attendant isolation has only heightened this sense: Atomized, lonely, and separated, we have relied on technology to hold us together. But sometimes it feels like more than anything else, we mostly need it to confirm that we are still seen. Whatever anyone is doing or writing or saying or suffering from or toiling at is not complete unless we see ourselves reflected back. I used to tell young journalists to strive to be a window not a mirror. But when we are suffering and feeling invisible—as we have been for months and months—what we need more than anything is a mirror, if only to reaffirm that we still exist at all.

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I used to call this free-floating daily disparagement of all that we had failed to write or say aloud “negative spaces”—pun fully intended. But Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor, author, and theologian, writing last week about exhaustion and overload, perfectly captured the grace and pain behind the need to perform caring about everyone and everything at all times. Her post resonated with virtually everyone I know who read it, but perhaps especially with women contending with the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, a catastrophic rise in COVID cases, school reopenings that are going terribly, and the generalized in-flames-y-ness of planet Earth. In it, Bolz-Weber described simultaneously feeling that our emotional circuit breakers are at risk of fritzing out from the volume of horror just as social media demands performatively posting about some issue or other. It’s not just the overload. It’s the overload coupled with the fact that we feel relentlessly called upon to perform everyone else’s first-order concerns. Because we are relentlessly advised that failing to do so, she writes, makes you an “irredeemably callous, privileged, bigot who IS PART OF THE PROBLEM.”

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Empathy overload is brutal, but being called out for missing a beat in your negative spaces is worse. Bolz-Weber reminds us that our job is neither to hold all the pain of the world, nor to fix all its ills, and not even to perform all the empathy. It’s sufficient and sane to conclude, as she does, that “it’s OK to do what is YOURS to do. Say what’s yours to say. Care about what’s yours to care about.” It’s hardly a cure for the criticism that happens in our negative spaces, but it’s at least a caution that whatever happens there has little to do with real moral virtue. Writing in a parallel vein at the Atlantic, Jacob Stern probes the aggregate effects of continued natural disasters, pandemic fatigue, and suffering on the human capacity for empathy right now. Stern concludes that while studies show that empathy fatigue need not last forever, it’s not clear when and if the current impulse to go numb will end. We’re doing a brisk business in journalism about empathy just now (here’s another recent piece from New York magazine), which perhaps only heightens the need to perform it harder.

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Technology makes it all so much worse. It bombards us with catastrophe and then reads a lack of immediate response as unconcern. Sigal Samuel, writing for Vox about the connection between “moral attention” and technology, reminds us that the whole object of having a life online is the curation and centering of oneself and one’s own brand. This means that you are by definition vying for a limited amount of public attention, aided by online platforms that “encourage us to create thicker selves and to shore them up—defensively, competitively—against other selves we perceive as better off.” In a sense, then, when we scold others for their public silences or inattention to the issues or disasters that matter most to us, we’re doing exactly what our tech companies have trained us to do—strengthening our own brands relative to others. So while we believe ourselves to be acutely empathetic to the plight of Afghan refugees, or victims of climate disasters, or those turned away from emergency rooms because of a glut of COVID patients, a decade of evidence shows, as Samuel puts it, that “digital tech is eroding our attention, which is eroding our moral attention, which is eroding our empathy.” Samuel’s fix, not unlike Bolz-Weber’s, is to turn inward, to eschew racking up the likes and dislikes with public shows of concern, and to instead strive for actual connections and actual empathy for others.

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Just as online technology has encouraged a hyperpolarized political world, it has also contributed to an acute splitting of self—a conviction both that we are the sum of what we post and that our failures to reflect and refract everything that hurts everyone else makes us ethically deficient. Let’s try not to mistake the inability to perform boundless public compassion with the inability to feel it, and let’s acknowledge—as Bolz-Weber reminds us—that the former actually diminishes the capacity for the latter. There is nothing as inspiring as someone doing good, in public, when things feel hideous and doomed. Let’s do some good, and let’s resist the temptation to browbeat those around us into doing good better. It’s not truly empathy if it’s procured at knifepoint, from the depleted.

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