Monday, May 23, 2016

The End of Empathy?

According to various surveys, Americans spend an average of something like 3 hours a day on their mobile devices.  A survey of women at one college found they spent about ten hours a day on their smartphones.  75% of young people (18-24) in yet another survey said the first thing they do upon waking is check their phones, presumably for text messages or Facebook updates.

All this worries Sherry Turkle, a very prominent and popular analyst of computerish things, for a number of reasons.  One of them is that this involvement in interconnection on a social media level somewhat paradoxically means that young people are losing the ability to empathize.  She cites a study saying that, according to standard psychological tests, there's been a 40% drop in empathy among college students in the past 20 years.

Whether or not this can be quantified, it's not easy to read online comments and discussions and mentally combine empathy and the Internet.  (And no, emojs don't count.)

The reason she suggests also seems paradoxical but to me rings true, at least in part: the absence of solitude.  "It's the capacity for solitude that allows you to reach out to others and see them as separate and independent," she writes.

But apparently we have nothing to worry about, according to another quote I read in the same issue of the New York Review of Books in which I saw Turkle's.  This one is in an essay on the new psychologists, particularly the mechanistically inclined evolutionary psychologists that seem to have taken power within the "profession."  It's an alarming piece for many reasons (such as the dependence of certain psychologists on Defense Dept. money, including those who helped design and run torture programs, and generally their arrogance) but this is a quote illustrating the point of view of a popular psychologist, Steven Pinker, in his popular book The Better Angels of Our Nature.  

While Pinker argues encouragingly that, taking the long view of our society, violence has declined and things are getting better, he takes the currently fashionable view in psychology that this is due mostly to an increasing reliance on rationality rather than feeling.  While empathy may have helped account for social progress in the past, the "ultimate goal should be policies and norms that become second nature and render empathy unnecessary."

I don't argue at all with the idea that society can and should create (or "evolve") norms that become second nature, because that's what they do.  Nor do I argue against applying reason, and increasing individual and societal consciousness, though I'm suspicious of the narrowness of the word "rationality" in these folks' mouths.

I do not however believe that empathy will ever be "unnecessary," as long as we are human beings anyway.  Empathy is near our essence.  It is an act or function of that other essential human quality: imagination.  Imagination is why empathy requires, if not solitude, an independent individual process of thinking and feeling that can happen in conversation or while watching a movie or listening to a talk, or observing others. (Eventually some solitude is probably required to complete it.)

It is even possible, as playwright Arthur Miller does in his autobiography, to correlate empathy with intelligence.  Miller (a Jew) writes about visiting the parents of his first wife (a Catholic) in the early 1930s. He notes that her mother "had intelligence: she was able to identify with people who were not Catholic."  Whereas her father could not.  Miller referred to this simply as "Stupidity, the want of empathetic power..."

It's a different kind of intelligence than these psychologists measure or perhaps even allow.  And it's striking that Miller offers one definition (though not a sole or exhaustive one) of stupidity as the inability to empathize.  It is a kind of intelligence that combines "rationality" (thinking, reason, logic, logical categories and correspondences, etc.) and feeling.  It's the kind we need, especially to meet the challenges of the future, which is already in progress.

1 comment:

Margaret said...

I'm empathetic to your positions and the people that worry me the most are the ones that claim to being rational.