The End of Empathy
This may be a little rambling and disjointed, but hey, that’s one of the benefits of a personal blog with a relatively light readership, right? A few loosely connected threads have been running through my brain, and while I’m not likely to be able to weave them into anything resembling a gorgeous tapestry, I might be able to produce something akin to a kindergarten “my first cross stitch” project.
How’s that for a tortured metaphor?
Item 1: Neighbors
As much as Prairie and I like where we live — we’ve got a nice apartment, in a nice complex, in a fairly pretty area of Washington, in the Kent Valley right next to the Green River and lots of farmland, with easy access to the Green River Trail and frequently gorgeous views of Mt. Rainier — we have neighbors who drive us up the wall with noise. We’ve made a number of attempts to find a solution (first personally, then through the rental office, and occasionally with the assistance of the local police), but the issues continue.
As we’ve discussed it, we keep coming back to the conclusion that on a very real level, the people around us simply don’t care about anything outside of themselves. Where we recognize that we live in an apartment complex and, out of common courtesy, take steps to live quietly and not impact on our neighbors any more than can be reasonably expected when living in an apartment complex, they act as if they have no idea that there’s anyone around them. Rock Band parties, loud music, shouting and yelling, little to no consideration for what time of night it is, etc.
It’s not that they don’t know that what they do might be (and often is) annoying to the people around them, it’s just that they don’t think about it at all. There’s no point when they realize that they might be getting a little loud and perhaps they should tone it down. There’s no concept of how they might be impacting their neighbors. Back when we used to think that being good neighbors and politely talking to them might make a difference, I’d get (privately) frustrated how they’d all wide-eyed and innocently tell us that they were not trying to bother us…but it never clicked that it would be good if they tried not to bother other people.
In short: no empathy, no acknowledgement of other people around them.
(And this little rant doesn’t even go into the number of “boom cars” that cruise through the parking lot at all hours of the day and night….)
Item 2: Jason Fortuny and Troll Culture
I’m not sure if the following is so much a lack of empathy as it is a near psychopathic anti-empathy, but the rise of modern ‘trolling‘ found a poster child in 2006 in Jason Fortuny, a local prankster and troll who conceived and executed the notorious Craigslist Sex Prank, in which he posted a fake sex ad on Craigslist, collected the hundreds of responses he got, and proceeded to post them publicly and in their entirety, complete with any identifying information (e-mail addresses, names, numbers, pictures, etc.) that had been included. I just found out a couple hours ago that one of the pranks victims sued Fortuny, and last week was awarded a nearly $75,000 judgement. This (the judgement) is a good thing.
Item 3: We Live in Public (and the End of Empathy)
Yesterday, Cygnoir linked to this article by Jason Calacanis from January, where he dives headlong into this lack of empathy and links it to our ever-increasing dependence on the digital world, and how a generation that has grown up with most of their contact with other people being through the digital medium are failing to develop that empathic sense of the actual person on the other end of the bitstream. It’s a long post, and well worth reading, but I’m going to pull out a couple of excerpts here.
From “Godwin’s Law Meets Harris’ Law”:
Digital communications is a wonderful thing–at least at the start. Everyone participating in digital communities is eventually introduced to Godwin’s Law: At some point, a participant, or more typically his or her thinking, will be compared to the Nazis. But that’s only part of the breakdown. Eventually, you see the effect of what I’ll call Harris’ Law: At some point, all humanity in an online community is lost, and the goal becomes to inflict as much psychological suffering as possible on another person.
Harris’ Law took effect last year when Abraham Biggs killed himself in front of a live webcam audience on life-streaming service JustinTV. The audience’s role? They encouraged him to do it.
Harris’ law took effect in October of 2006, when Lori Drew, a grown woman, created a fake alias on MySpace (”Josh Evans”) in order to psychologically torture 14-year-old Megan Meier. Drew started a online love affair with Megan as “Evans” before pulling the rug out and viciously turning on her victim. This “cyber-bullying,” as the press likes to call it, resulted in Megan killing herself.
Harris’ Law took effect in October of last year when Choi Jin-sil killed herself, reportedly over the fallout from Internet rumors. The bullying in Korea has become so intense that you’re now required to use your Social Security Number to sign up for a social network. This lack of anonymity is one of the most enlightened things I’ve heard of from one of the most advanced–if not the most advanced–Internet communities in the world.
Ownership of one’s behavior? Who knew?!?!?
I’m sure some of the wacky Internet contingents will flame me for saying that anonymity is a bad thing, but the fact is that anonymous environments create the environments in which Godwin’s and Harris’ Laws apply. What’s the point of starting these communities if they eventually end in pain and suffering? Anonymity is overrated in my book.
From “Internet Asperger’s Syndrome (IAS)”:
I’ve come to recognize a new disorder, the underlying cause of Harris’ Law. This disease affects people when their communication moves to digital, and the emotional cues of face-to-face interaction–including tone, facial expression and the so called “blush response”–are lost (More: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9FxwHfoWdS8 ).
In this syndrome, the afflicted stops seeing the humanity in other people. They view individuals as objects, not individuals. The focus on repetitive behaviors–checking email, blogging, twittering and retiring andys–combines with an inability to feel empathy and connect with people.
[...] In IAS, screen names and avatars shift from representing people to representing characters in a video game. Our 2600’s and 64’s have trained us to pound these characters into submission in order to level up. We look at bloggers, people on Twitter andpodcasters not as individuals, but as challenges–in some cases, “bosses”–that we must crush to make it to the next phase.
From “What’s at Stake?”:
Today, we’re destroying each other with words, but teaching ourselves to objectify individuals and to identify with aggressors will result in more than psychological violence. This behavior will find its way into the real world, like it did when Wayne Forrester murdered his wife Emma over a change in herFacebook status, from married to single.
It’s only a matter of time, sadly, until this loss of empathy will hit the real world. We’re training ourselves to destroy other people, and there’s a generation growing up with this in their DNA. They don’t remember a world when communications were primarily in the real world.
So what’s the point of all this? Well, aside from the obvious conclusion of Jason’s piece — “In summary, how we treat each other does matter. It matters because, without empathy, our lives are shallow, self-centered and meaningless.” — I’m really not sure.
I do believe, though, that this is a real problem. I see too much evidence of this lack of empathy and consideration for others, too many instances of “it’s all about me,” both online and off. From internet trolls like Jason to people on a bike path who will continue to ride side by side, forcing other people off the trail, because it’s more important to continue their conversation than to share the space. From neighbors who feel Rock Band isn’t any good unless it’s played at the volume of a rock concert to people who hide behind anonymous handles to post hateful messages attacking others.
People sometimes wonder why I don’t try to be more anonymous online, why I blog under my real name, especially as it’s something that has caused me problems in the past. Some of the reasoning goes back to my “Own Yourself” post (itself triggered by Anil Dash’s “Privacy Through Identity Control” post), but some of it is this very issue.
I don’t want to hide, or be perceived as hiding, what I think, say, and believe, through an online pseudonym. This is what and who I am, this is what I believe. Sometimes I’ve believed some stupid things that I’ve later changed my mind on, sometimes I’ve done some stupid things that I’ve had to take my lumps for, but it’s all me. Perhaps, in some small (and quite possibly futile) way, I’m hoping that being open and honest about myself will, in some cases and for some people, humanize me more than would be the case if I stuck to ‘djwudi’.
I think, perhaps, that anonymity hurts those who practice it as much as it protects them. Hiding behind a pseudonym with no real view of who the real person is dehumanizes yourself, encouraging others to see you as something less than a real person, and leading you open to attack. Perhaps for some that’s an acceptable risk — I can see a whole long debate about whether the dehumanization of anonymity is more or less dangerous than the openness of a real identity, and I’m certainly something of a poster child for the risks of blogging under a real name (though I’d still argue that my case is more one of blogging foolishly under my real name) — but for me, it’s not. To quote one of the great philosophers of our time, “I yam what I yam, and that’s all that I yam,” and I’m standing by that.
The End (Such As It Is)
And now that I’ve gone completely off the rails (hey, what ever happened to that thread/sewing metaphor?)…yeah, empathy. Have some. Please? Think about the people around you, both in the real world and in this online bitbucket. I don’t care how cheezy it sounds, or what you might think of the source document, but the Golden Rule of “do unto others as you’d have done unto you” really isn’t such a bad thing, now is it?
Now if we can just convince our neighbors of this….