The Death of Empathy: Surviving the Culture of Snark

Surviving?  Given the death of empathy for each other as fellow human beings, if we make it through the century it will surely be a miracle.

Hey, Bruised Muse readers, I tend toward cynicism myself at times, and have even been known to be kind of funny in my real life (if not particularly so far on this blog), but my humor is generally directed toward myself, as in self-deprecating, if you know what I mean.  It seems we’ve arrived in the last few years at some kind of a PEAK OF SNARK in this culture, in which so called humor is used as a weapon to destroy others, rather than as a coping mechanism to help and heal ourselves.  You have to now call ours a Culture of Snark; one writer has even gone so far as to call it the Culture of Sadism.  He isn’t far off.

You see the culture of snark and sadism in the songs the kids listen to, lyrics that regularly label women bitches and ho’s.  You see it all over the Internet, in “comments” so vile that you have to wonder if the people saying such things in public had mothers. You see it in these dreadful bullying episodes that have resulted in teen suicides. You see it in politics, of course. I see it in my psychotherapy office, among kids who call each other names as standard practice, even between husbands and wives who are supposed to love each other.  But what disturbs me the most is when vile comments are EVEN directed at people who have suffered misfortune, tragedy, or trauma, as if some people deliberately reject the “intellectual” or “psychological” idea that blaming the victim is wrong, and try to blame the victim and heap abuse on her (or him) as much as possible.

Because I’m alert to the horror of maternal bereavement myself, I first became aware of this when I heard the unbelievably nasty things people were saying about Cindy Sheehan, who lost a son in Iraq. I mean the woman lost her son! I don’t care what your politics are. How can ANYONE justify let alone SAY in public the following sentence (written by someone who calls him or herself 12th Monkey), which I found after a one minute search of the Internet: She (Cindy) reveals (in her book) that her son’s death in that war almost drove her to take her own life: “Every night I had to restrain myself from taking my entire bottle of sleeping pills instead of just one.” Cindy, please reconsider.

Cindy, please reconsider?  12th Monkey, where were you raised?

It’s as if people’s internal censors are no longer functioning, as if they’ve completely lost their empathy for their fellow human beings. Are we turning into a nation of sociopaths with no conscience?

There’s an important piece by Maureen Dowd called Stars and Sewers in today’s NY TIMES about this issue. It asks the question: “Are our brains being rewired to be more callous by the Internet?” The piece in part talks about the terrible snark that has come out against reporter Laura Logan, after her terrible rape in Egypt. It references two new books I intend to read.  The first is by Evgeny Morozov, “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, and the other by Nicholas Carr, author of “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.”  Here’s one of Dowd’s quotes from the latter book: “Researchers say that we need to be quiet and attentive if we want to tap into our deeper emotions,” If we’re constantly interrupted and distracted, we kind of short-circuit our empathy. If you dampen empathy and you encourage the immediate expression of whatever is in your mind, you get a lot of nastiness that wouldn’t have occurred before.”

The Bruised Muse wonders where all this is leading.  Can it really get WORSE than Dowd’s example of a Feb. 3 snipe from the conservative blog Mofo Politics, after Logan was detained by the Egyptian police: “OMG if I were her captors and there were no sanctions for doing so, I would totally rape her.”

I would totally rape her?

When we combine snark and/or sadism with a general dumbing down, anti-intellectual strain of the culture, we find ourselves in a truly scary place.  Big consequences not only for our relationships but for civilization itself. For example, although we can trace a relatively straight line directly from the behavior and music beloved by many members of my generation, including myself, to the current generation, who in the world would have ever guessed that in just thirty years, popular culture would devolve to the point where songs with lyrics considered racy at that time, like the Rolling Stones’, “Let’s spend the night together” are played on loudspeakers in supermarkets for all to hear, and the kids are now listening to songs with lyrics like 2 Live Crew’s, “Nibble on my dick like a rat does cheese?” Now THERE’S poetry. I sure hope future shoppers won’t be listening to THAT while picking up the Gouda.

Yes, I’m making a joke here, but this really is dead serious.

Does the Bruised Muse have a “Survival Tip” for dealing with this disturbing tendency? Obviously the Internet isn’t going away, but public awareness is always the first step toward action and/or change.  Research may say that our brains are being rewired, but other research (read, for example, Life Unlocked, by Srinivasan Pillay, MD) says that you can outsmart your wiring, in other words re-re-wire, by thinking different (ie better, in this case nicer) thoughts. The Bruised Muse says: Speak out out against the culture of snark.  Breath deeply.  Think of the other.  Be nice.

4 thoughts on “The Death of Empathy: Surviving the Culture of Snark

  1. Thank you, Fran, for encouraging people to connect the dots from their actions to the consequences (which sometimes evolve into societal changes). That seems to be an endangered form of analysis, as are most.

    I would like to know more about how constant interruptions and distractions can suppress empathy. Can you recommend any sources?
    Regarding the misogyny in current music…is it possible that by blaming the artists we are indirectly blaming victims?

    Although it is now far removed from the ghetto, much of rap originated in impoverished and violent surroundings. It wouldn’t surprise me if (even today) many of the artist’s mothers were victims of domestic violence and worse; which helped form the next generation’s view of the gender as a whole. Now it may be a way to distance themselves from it by calling it out. Or, because the lyrics glorify such women and eroticize the violence, is there something Freudian going on?

    Regardless, the fact that the industry intentionally profits from such a message, despite the obvious harm, is shameful.

    Keep up the good work. Awesome blog…oops, someone just texted me…gotta go.

  2. Why thank you, Metro Attorney.
    Yes, it is absolutely true that rap originated amidst the violence and dysfunction of the ghetto.I certainly don’t want to blame the victims, but I’m a clinical social worker and at the risk of sounding non-PC, I see women who are victims of multigenerational violence, sexual abuse, unrestrained impulsivity, drugs, lack of education, and male abandonment of them and their children. Even though the women may hope each man will stay with them and their children the men help them create, they keep having children because like everyone they’re looking for love and respect, and they may think they’re going to get it, but don’t, then spend the rest of lives trying to get the men to step up, and thus perpetuate the cycle of violence, male abandonment, lack of education, and impulsivity. I am constantly amazed in my office by how ingrained, accepted, and unquestioned the culture of the Babydaddy is. It may be Freudian, but if it can be changed, it will only be changed cognitive/behaviorally. And when people speak out against it.
    I haven’t yet had a chance to read those books I mentioned in the post, but I suspect when I do I’ll find the answers to your questions about how distraction disrupts empathy.
    Thanks for writing. Write again.

  3. Agreed about snark, Cindy Sheehan, etc. But…was there ever a time in history where mores did not change during the next hundred years, and while “loosening” often became better? The people who put an A on Hester Prynne would be agog at the spectacle of people doing the Charleston, right? We got past most concern over the threat of excessive enjoyment of dancing, and 30 years later, “Wake Up Little Susie” was banned because the kids fell asleep on a movie date. Right about then, “Rebel Without A Cause” came out, and pretty soon, the Sharks and the Jets were battling with knives, resulting in a death, more serious tham foul lyrics. It’s the nature of pop culture, or all culture, to move and loosen, in what ends up feeling like progress. I for one would not wish to go back to 1960, or 1980. Where’s the line, and who gets to draw it, as to when it went just a little too far? Pushing the envelope on everything will never stop, and that seems OK.

  4. Hi Fran,

    Got to your site via my connection with Hollaback NYC. Love that group and everything they are doing! I just read your blog about the Death of Empathy. It was such a comfort because I was thinking that I was the only one feeling so concerned about “people” today! It doesn’t get uglier than it is now! For example, I was surfing the web awhile back and got to sites that were “Celebrity Roasts” by comedians. Wow, have these ever changes since the 70’s and 80’s. These roasts used to be funny, now they are sadistic. Some of the older stars like Bea Arthur and Betty White must have been mortified by the comments. This generation of 30 somethings are defintitely less humane or perhaps less human. It is like evolution in reverse!

    In my community adults model bullying as the way to solve problems but then decry the school systems “failure to protect their children from bullies” It is painful to watch the incredible hypocracy. I can see why people disconnect. I find myself thinking horrible things like “they all deserve each other and every bad thing that happens to them”. They consistantly miss the point when they stand by and watch others get hurt or contribute to bullying themselves. The make the behaviour acceptable, all the while not realizing that they, or their loved ones, are next. The only way to build a better society is to promote mutual respect.

    Thanks for putting this on the radar!

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