The empathy strip mall

Feb 11, 2015 at 3:05 pm
The empathy strip mall

Carefully keeping up with the news might be a formula for despair. Just in the past few months, we’ve endured a string of deeply disturbing behavior among our fellow humans.

We’ve witnessed horrifying ISIS slayings, Boko Haram atrocities, terror in Paris, police brutality in the US, anti-immigration demonstrations, disease outbreaks and mildly underinflated footballs.

A deeper look at our culture reveals intractable political polarization, a disturbing wealth gap, institutional racism, a suicide epidemic, and cruel, instantaneous bullying online. Our world seems to be suffering from a severe empathy deficit. Our drone-loving president has even made war into a seemingly antiseptic video game that shields our eyes from the horror we are dropping on our enemies (and innocent bystanders and their children).

One lazy solution is to quit following the news. But instead of becoming a nation of drooling treacle-guzzlers favoriting YouTube cat videos and binge-watching Ellen, maybe it’s worth trying to hone our empathy chops.

A lot of recent research suggests that working to increase empathy has a positive effect on individuals and could well improve society at large. Psychologists have touted ways to increase empathy in society as a means to reduce violence and improve social justice. If we could somehow tap into a wellspring of empathy, we could potentially solve all our problems (or at least figure out why some people like soccer).

The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof recently wrote about ways we can increase empathy. Studies have shown that wealthy people tend to have less empathy than the population at large. Stress also tends to suppress empathy: It’s hard to feel another’s pain when you’re unemployed or your shoes are too tight or your genitals are wired to the electrical grid. And other research has shown that traveling abroad and volunteering can significantly increase feelings of empathy. Another showed that people who read literary fiction score higher on tests of social empathy than people who don’t.

In a recent NPR story, journalist Nonny de la Peña called virtual reality an “empathy generator” because of its ability to immerse people into a far-away conflict like the civil war in Syria. A pioneer in the nascent field of immersive journalism, Peña says virtual reality (coming soon to a headset near you) connects with people in a deeper way than newspapers or TV. Just as technology taketh empathy away (drones, Twitter) it can also giveth (virtual reality, international travel).

So the solution seems to be to take all the money from the rich and give everybody service trips abroad, Xanax prescriptions, virtual-reality headsets and copies of Great Expectations. But that might be a bit tricky to implement. If there’s one subsection of society everybody feels empathy for, it’s the rich. So we’ll probably need another solution.

My brother-in-law Bill, who, like Wile E. Coyote, is a certified super genius, has a plan that is so crazy it just might work. Bill’s idea is for society to reward people who practice empathy with a small token of appreciation.

People could practice empathy – whether by reading literary fiction, virtual-reality journalism or just prayer, meditation or mindfulness – and earn a reward. The reward could be a modest tax exemption, plus maybe a discount coupon for a mani-pedi or a cold beer or an ice cream cone or a round of bowling or billiards. (We’ll have to work out some of the details.)

There are plenty of decaying strip malls in the great American landscape ideally suited to house virtual-reality empathy tax-exemption spas, with neighboring libraries, nail salons, ice-cream parlors, pubs, bowling alleys and so on. The Affordable Care Act website could serve as the facilitator of the project, perhaps in partnership with that Oculus Rift guy or maybe Elon Musk, depending upon the empathy strip mall’s launch specifications. (Like Obamacare, we might not get it perfect on the first try but we can always fix it later.)

The money we’d eventually save by not fighting wars and shooting each other in the streets and building prisons and paying for therapy after reading online comments would easily pay for the project. And where better to pilot the empathy strip mall than Louisville, an actual Compassionate City? (There’s a website so it must be true.)

Someday in the future, children will ask their parents, “How did human suffering end?” And, if we play our cards right, the answer could be, “Empathy strip malls, my dear. Empathy strip malls.”