I remember seeing a show many years ago that talked about empathy. The story went as follows:
Imagine that you are in your car, and someone cuts you off. You will often react by honking your horn, yelling obscenities, or feeling angry.
Now imagine that you are walking down the street, and someone cuts you off by bumping into you. If the other person apologizes, you continue on your way; no harm, no foul. If not, you may grumble something under your breath, but you are less likely to cause a scene or audibly vocalize your anger.
Why? When we are in our cars, we feel a sense of protection. We are yelling at a vehicle, an object. But when an actual person bumps into us, we are face-to-face with a human being. We are no longer “protected” by a vehicle, we are forced to look one another in the eye, and, therefore, more likely to be empathetic to the other person's (unintentional) actions.
I was reminded of this story this morning as I spent another day scrolling through my Facebook page. I began to think that this is what’s happening to us on social media. We are “protected” in a virtual world. We aren’t looking people in the face as often when we speak our minds, and, as a result, we seem to be losing our sense of empathy. I know that for many this is nothing new; however, I think we are seeing an increase in the lack of empathy that has been taking place. For example, I stumbled across a political post this morning and clicked on the comment section, only to see comments quickly becoming verbal attacks, the argument nowhere to be found. Words like, “You are disgusting for thinking this,” “You’re an idiot,” “I used to like you,” etc. I know you and I have both seen this and much worse.
I have often wondered when social media turned into what it has now become: both an immense connector and divider at the same time (in the words of Jon Stewart). The trend was moving in this direction before this past year (though many will argue that it has become exacerbated). Perhaps it’s a by-product of our “tell us what you think” culture. Perhaps we are becoming more comfortable with using social media as a platform to express how we think or feel. Regardless, both our connections and divisions are becoming greater, but it’s the divisions that have me most concerned.
In a recent preview for his upcoming special, Tom Brokaw mentioned to Jon Stewart that these technological innovations are nothing new. He recalled the time when his family got their first TV and went on to say that while TV could be used for “good,” it could also be a platform used otherwise. He said that he saw similar connections to social media. To me, what is unique about social media, however, is how we are communicating our oppositions or disagreements. In the past we would sit down, face to face with one another, and express how we felt. Now? Now we are communicating with a computer screen between us, and like being in the car, there is an inexplicable barrier between “me” and “you” when people don’t see the way the other does. Or see why the other person does.
The result? Well, the result I am seeing as of late is verbal attacks on one another, and when these attacks happen to my own friends or are attacks on what I fundamentally believe and hold to be morally and ethically true, I have been hitting three buttons: Unfriend. Unfollow. Delete. (I do, however, see the inherent danger in doing that as well.) What I can’t delete, unfortunately, and what I can’t ignore is the impact this is having on my understanding of community. My understanding of empathy. And I don’t know what to do about that in a virtual world. I mean, I do my best to leave it as often as I can. To reach out to people and meet face to face. To pick up a poem, a short story, a play and remember the importance in doing so. To fight for a cause I think is important enough to take part in. (Maybe that’s all I can do.)
But I still find myself going back. Find myself trying to understand how we got to this place. I guess I still long for the sense of connection, the sense of community that I once found there. Maybe it still is, and I’m just having a hard time seeing past the cars that continue to cut us off without recognition or acknowledgement of who we are as human beings.