A Crisis of Empathy

The cost of caring in a pandemic

I used to fantasize about murdering the man who hurt my sister. They were my daytime thoughts, which I indulged in to soothe the nightmares. The ones that I had over and over, when I closed my eyes. The ones where he would kill everyone in the family, and I would have to watch.

I don’t love that I wished someone death. I talk about this with my therapist a lot: those times when I do wish someone harm. Actual harm. She tells me this is okay. It makes sense, in a way, to wish away the people who have done you the most harm. It’s a Fruedian wish fulfillment. She says she will let me know when I am cruel. When I am dead inside.

Once, I proposed this idea: She tells me the names of all the bad men in town, and then I seduce and murder them. And we call the Netflix show The Freelancer. She assures me, I am not quite over the edge. But no, she won’t violate HIPAA, even though she thinks my Netflix show idea is great. Fine. Okay.

But it’s happening again this year. There are some people getting sick, and I cannot muster up an ounce of sympathy for them. Not one. In fact, sometimes, I want them to suffer. I don’t like saying that out loud, but there it is.

And it’s because they are in power and have done nothing to minimize the loss and grief of this year.

In the early days of the pandemic, when it became very clear that the people in the Midwest who were the most impacted by the virus were the food processing plant workers, I wrote a column about that fact. I wrote about how as a state and a nation we were all saying, “We’re in this together,” but we were not, and we never were. We were happy to let people die so we could eat Tyson processed pork products.

Here is what I wrote in April: “From the beginning of this pandemic, people, companies, and political leaders have loved to repeat the refrain that ‘we are all in this together.’ As some sort of rallying cry. A way to encourage unity and hope. Gov. Reynolds has said this in news conferences and on Twitter. ‘We’re all in this together!’ But that statement rests on a fundamental denial of inequality in America and in Iowa, where the virus is disproportionately affecting black and brown people, immigrants, and the formerly incarcerated who work at meat packing and food processing plants. The virus is disproportionately affecting health care workers and ‘essential workers,’ who often earn minimum wage. A wage that GOP leaders in Iowa and nationally have refused to raise. And now, with the state opening up, furloughed workers are being told to go back to work or risk losing their jobs. I put ‘essential workers’ in quotes because many of those workers are not essential for our daily lives, they are only essential for corporations to make money. Some of them may die, but to quote the great leader Lord Farquaad from the movie Shrek, that’s a risk our governor is willing to take.”

After I wrote this, I received a lot of mail. “But what about our food!?” one emailer protested. “You can maybe not eat pork for a month so other people can live,” I wrote back. His response, which I wish I could quote, but the email is long lost, accused me of being a typical liberal, and maybe I should know how poorly New York was handling the virus as well.

That was a line of attack that I got a lot for a while. “Well, New York isn’t so great, either!” And I’d always respond, “Yeah, exactly!”

I still think about that. In response to the overwhelming cost of human lives, many, many Iowans took time to email me, “But what about my dinner?”

An essay by Reginald F. Baugh titled, “The Evolution of Social Beliefs 1960-2016 in the United States and Its Influence on Empathy and Prosocial Expression in Medicine,” argues that in response to social upheaval, our societal inclination is to become more selfish and less empathetic. 

Charting the 56 years between 1960 and 2016, Baugh pulls together some research all in one place and notes (with footnotes), “Mistrust of others continued its 40-year increase into the first decade of the 21st century. Importantly, the same period saw a 40% decline in empathy among college students, just as social anxiety regarding multicultural pluralism as a social motivator was becoming evident. Researchers also documented a decline in dispositional empathy, especially after 2000.”

Wondering when we stopped caring about others presumes we ever really cared before as a society. It presumes that there was a point at which humans looked at one another and said, “We care.”

The reality is, empathy has been a gift all too often bestowed on those we deem worthy of it rather than those who need it the most. Study after study shows that humans empathize with those who look like us. Humans who do violence don’t lack empathy. They have empathy, but only for the people who look like them. For everyone else? Well? The answer lies in the number who are dead from this pandemic.

This week, at her press conference, Iowa’s governor, when questioned about why she has refused to take the pandemic seriously since the spring, lashed out at the media and asked, “Were you a chorus in adding volume to what we were trying to say?”

The reality is, no. The media was the chorus saying what the governor was never saying. The Des Moines Register, me at The Gazette, The Times Citizen urging people to do the opposite of what our governor was doing and wear a mask and stay home. It was a Greek chorus of voices begging people to care, to have empathy.

At the Register, they did the Iowa Mourns project. 

The point is, our lack of empathy isn’t a messaging problem, it’s a cultural one. 

It’s one that has always been there. 

And I do not mean in other people. I do not mean in “those others who voted Trump.” I mean this lack of empathy exists in you. It exists in me. Humans are bad at sitting and grappling with our cognitive bias. We always want to blame others. We always see ourselves as the good ones.

A person I know just posted pictures of her trip to Florida with her kids. This same person has complained about other people not wearing masks or taking the pandemic seriously.

A couple of things: 1) don’t post pictures of your trips, 2) wow, the cognitive dissonance.

And, I don’t know. I’m not saying I am better. It’s a pandemic. None of us is getting an A+ at this. We are all muddling through. But, so often, our muddling comes at the expense of other people’s lives.

I spoke to a nurse at the University of Iowa last week for an assignment for the Washington Post. I think about her, how she cries every day going to and from work.

There are other people demanding our compassion. I get this, too. Business owners trying not to lose their incomes. Communities trying not to lose the places that have shaped their narratives. The bars. The restaurants. It’s not nothing, these places.

There is a man in my town, whom I will not name, but he’s gunning hard to be the next mayor — and this is why I can never leave Facebook, because in small towns (shut up, Cedar Rapids is small, and we all know it), Facebook is how our policies are litigated — and this man keeps crowdsourcing ideas to save businesses. None of those ideas ever include going to the people in charge of this state and asking for a bailout. To him, businesses are the thing in crisis. Because he is a businessman and that’s where his empathy lies. I am not saying businesses do not deserve empathy. What I am saying is that as humans, the target of our empathy has more to do with ourselves than the actual pain in the world. And our pandemic has put two things at odds: lives and livelihoods, when it was never a zero sum game between the two.

There is also something else at play in this logic: The individual is the solution. When we make crisis solutions an individual responsibility, rather than a corporate one, they come at the cost of our empathy. Baugh’s essay points this out too, charting that as our individualism increases, our empathy for others decreases. After all, if we can fix our lives, why can’t others? And so we devolve into screaming matches over masks in the grocery store, all the while voting to retain the status quo.

In refusing to hold our systems accountable, we pit human lives against a pork tenderloin, and lose our humanity.