Skip to content

The End of Empathy

April 24, 2019

There is no arguing that we live in a shifting culture. Things that we took for granted 30 years ago are on their way out, or already gone. The victims of the shift are many. Car sales are down as increasingly fewer young adults own cars or even bother to get a drivers’ license. Retail sales are down, as youth spend more on experiences, than they do on things. Shifts in transportation and retail are one thing, but shifts in behaviour are another.


It wasn’t long ago that if your neighbour needed help you were there for them. It didn’t matter what their political views were, or what church they attended, if at all. What mattered, is that they were your neighbour, and you helped each other. As society has urbanized people are far less likely to even know who their neighbours are, let alone lend them a hand. Today, people no longer associate with their own zip code, instead they associate with those of their own ideological code instead. That means that we are far more likely to spend time with those who think like us, and believe like us, than we are with those who live near us. Today our relationships are with those of our tribe not those of our neighbourhood. In other words, as we have urbanized we have tribalized.


Urbanization, is not the only contributing force behind cultural tribalism. The internet has also exploded and deepened our tribal roots. The internet has enabled us to find those who identify with our feelings, beliefs, and opinions, as never before. It is a place where you are embraced by some and shamed by others, simply because of an opinion or a belief.


One of the biggest victims of tribalism has been empathy. In the 70’s when I was younger, empathy was all the rage. We were taught that it was important, to walk in another person’s shoes or to look at things from another’s perspective. Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, was considered an attribute of an evolved person. Over the last decade though, empathy has taken a nose dive. Since the 1960’s researchers have surveyed young people on their levels of empathy, testing their agreement with statements such as: “It’s not really my problem if others are in trouble and need help.” Results of such tests held steady for decades, but started to slide around 2000. Today more students say it is not their problem to help people in trouble, nor is it their job to see the world from someone else’s perspective. By 2009, Sara Konrath from the University of Indiana, found that young people on average measured 40 percent less empathetic than a generation before – 40 percent!


It is not that empathy has disappeared entirely, it is that it is reserved only for those who are of our tribe. Today it is empathy only for your own team. And empathy for the other team? That’s practically taboo.


Fritz Breithaupt, the author of “The Dark Sides of Empathy” is alarmed at the apparent new virus of selective empathy and how it is deepening divisions in society. He cautions, “If you embrace this selective empathy you basically give up on civil society. You give up on democracy. If you feed into the division, it will become so strong that it will become dangerous.”


The cure of course, is Jesus. As believers we are bound to a culture of empathy. Jesus himself taught us to treat all people with love and respect. His teaching was counter culture in the 1st Century. It looks like it is counter culture today as well.


43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? 48 Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect. Matt. 5:43-48