The End of Empathy and the Locking of the American Mind

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source:; January 8, 2019)

We want to believe our every thought is the product of free will and from that foundation we self-select what thoughts we choose to share with others.

“Let me speak my mind,” we often say.

But do we? And even if think we do, are the thoughts we select from truly representative of our personal realities?

Deep down, we know a genuinely free mind is far too much work. It is simply not practical to be too open-minded and we can all think of times when we said something to sound polite or well-informed, even if we didn’t believe it or know what to say in the first place.

When recently asked if I liked the movie Green Book, my response was immediate: “I really enjoyed it. It was a very thought-provoking movie about racism in the 1960s.” (But it isn’t. It is the ‘See Spot Run’-level, nuance-free type of anti-racism movie I expect from Hollywood. Shallow and self-consciously important. I hated it.). But I still said I liked it — a lot.

[Side note: This is one reason why opinion survey results, particularly when related to personal attitudes and preferences, have to be analyzed with a healthy dose of skepticism. People don’t generally lie on surveys as much as they mold their responses to fit the moment.]

More broadly, we tend to believe things uncritically, especially things we don’t experience firsthand. We take others’ word for it, not because they are necessarily experts but because we are not. Or we deliberately ignore contradictory information just to maintain the peace in our head and within our social interactions.

Its a ‘go-along-to-get-along’ frame of mind. It’s social constructivism with hints of Marxism. The system causes us to think the way we think.

When our thoughts become speech, the words we use are often chosen for us by the people we socialize with, the media we consume, the churches where we congregate, and the schools we attend. The gentle tyranny of social norms and peer pressure consistently narrow our perspectives and therefore our potential for creative thought and expression.

If freedom of speech means the self-regulated articulation of ideas drawn from a narrow set of socially(elite)-determined alternatives, then, yes, we have free speech. But it is seldom interesting speech.

For society to function relatively smoothly from day-to-day, all alternatives cannot be available and debated at every moment. If the sign at my intersection says ‘No Right Turn On Red’ today, I expect to see it tomorrow too. A well-functioning, civil society has necessary boundaries.

But the dysfunction we see now in our political system is at least partly rooted in the scarcity of ideas we are exposed to at any given time. If most of our information comes from the AP wire and cable news networks, we are seeing but a thin slice of our world. The irony is that the Information Age’s social media-stoked period offers up fewer perspectives and weaker ideas than ever.

Every minute we spend on social media is a minute we spend with our head planted firmly up our arse. And I include myself in that ‘head-up-butt’ metaphor.

Some have argued that our ability to empathize is dying as a result. Whether through compassion fatigue, confirmation bias, or the over-simplification of social relationships, today’s young adults are showing less empathy than prior generations.

However, the issue may be more than just decreasing levels of empathy, but how individuals determine towards whom to extend their empathy.

Our ability to empathize independently may be the biggest victim of today’s social media obsession. We have to be told (typically by social elites and respected peers) who deserves our empathy and who does not. We may be losing the capacity to make that decision on our own.

This is why we witness these grotesque inconsistencies in whom some deem worthy of our protection and those who are labeled unworthy. In today’s partisan political world, a person can freely label Iran has the ‘world’s biggest supporter of terrorism,’ while calling Saudi Arabia a ‘trusted ally’. Never mind that the 9–11 terrorists were mostly Saudi and funded by a Saudi national. Never mind that ISIS and al Qaeda-aligned terrorists find their ideological roots in Saudi-sourced Wahhabism, not Shia Islam.

In an empathy-starved environment, diplomats can call Gaza Palestinians ‘terrorists’ for launching Katyusha rockets at Israel from locations near schools and hospitals, but when Israeli bombers allegedly shield their maneuvers by shadowing (and endangering) civilian airliners, that is legitimate ‘self-defense’.

Facts really stop mattering when others tell you how to think.

And this empathy deficit is not unique to Donald Trump, or his supporters, or neoconservatives. Liberals, progressives and left-right centrists routinely engage in the same behavior. In fact, it is the new normal for everyone.

When some believe that a conspiracy occurs when a presidential campaign operative, in pursuit of evidence of wrongdoing by an opponent, meets with a Putin-linked Russian lawyer, but are unwilling to hold the FBI accountable for using unsubstantiated, unvetted foreign-sourced opposition research to authorize surveillance of a presidential campaign operative, they are applying inconsistent standards.

When some are convinced crudely designed Russian Facebook memes can alter a presidential election, but ignore the culpability behind and potential impact of a false-flag disinformation campaign linking a Republican U.S. Senate candidate to the Russians, they are applying inconsistent standards.

The consistent use of empathy is hard work, made harder because we don’t generally experience national and world events directly and are dependent on others to educate us on these events. That is a fact driven by our natural limitations.

But that shouldn’t make us wholly dependent on others to interpret such events and to link them to larger constructs.

Yet, that is where we are today. We too often let others do our thinking for us. On the one hand, it makes getting through the day much easier. On the other hand, it can lead us into intellectual cul-de-sacs that may serve others’ interests more than our own. Inconsistencies and hypocrisies we would otherwise correct instantly are ignored, or even worse, embraced.

Why? Because we are told to do so.

Our current propensity for selective outrage and withholding empathy is damaging not just our democracy, but our society in general. It is almost passé to say that anymore. Still, we all know it and we literally do NOTHING about it.

Part II of this essay will discuss the importance of information diversity and how search engines (such as Google) and social media networks might benefit their businesses and society by more systematically introducing the power of random selection into their services.

  • K.R.K.

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