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  Empathy, shmempathy.

JULY/2011 – A few months back, the Associated Press reported on a study conducted at the University of Michigan that found that college-aged adults and younger and under have less empathy than previous generations. Holy shit. You’re telling me that the same young ‘uns I’m yelling at to get off my lawn can’t put themselves in my shoes and understand why I’m pissed off*?

According to reports, the study found that, “college students are less likely to understand the emotions of others than their age group's predecessors.” It also found that the test group scored 40 percent lower than participants from 20 and 30 years ago.

While this is hardly a revelation to anyone that is paying attention, it makes me wonder where we (the editorial “we”) went wrong and how do we correct this? Assuming that declining levels of empathy is even a problem that can be solved. Social engineering, after all, is a soft science. If we were trying to answer a riddle or solve a mathematical equation, we’d just call in the guy with the pocket protector and coke-bottle glasses (at least, that’s what we’d do if we were in a 1980’s sci-fi comedy … I’m not sure if that stereotype ever had merit).

While the study didn’t offer any nuggets of wisdom explaining the sharp decline in empathy, I think there are three primary culprits: 1. The rise in Internet message board mentality (endless opinions, zero repercussions) 2. The proliferation of hyperbole (it is the absolute worst it’s been since the birth of man) 3. The media’s increasing reliance on opinion over fact.

Number 1 on the list is most likely the primary culprit. We now live in a world where one can spew venom into the series of tubes that is the Internet (thank you Ted Stephens for that nugget of wisdom) without ever seeing the face of your target. People have stopped being people and have become words on a screen. Zeroes and ones get no respect up in this house. And the mentality has become so ingrained that kids these days (yes, I used this phrase – get over it) have carried this attitude into the real world.

Take for instance, this pleasant anecdote: My wife and I were at the mall and saw a couple fellows cowboyed up. Now, these guys looked like actual cowboys, not some wannabe suburbanites. They were grizzled and their cowboy boots were well worn. As they passed a couple teens lounging on the stairs leading to the mall’s entrance, one of the kids stated (loudly), “Huh, huh, it looks like Brokeback Mountain here.” They’re lucky the cowboys didn’t kick their weak, suburbanite asses for the joke, which sounded like something someone would post on a message board.

Hyperbole is also turning people into empathy-challenged jackasses. If you describe someone as being “the most (something) ever,” odds are they are not. Only one person can hold that title, and chances are that person or thing you are describing is not it. (Unless you say that Caruso Deluxe is the most kick ass Yahtzee player, ever. Then you are most correct person in the history of everything.)

Personally, I would like to retire the phrase. It lessens the impact when every douche with a keyboard says it with seriousness on a regular basis. Plus, your stupid reality show is not about to show the “most shocking event, ever” after the commercial break. So stop. Calling everything “the most extreme thing ever” is giving the younger, empathy-less generation the fuel to make their rantings and venom spewing all the more ridiculous.

Finally, I think that the media’s reliance on the opinion of talking heads over fact is sending the wrong message to the young ‘uns. Instead of reporting facts and figures, most news outlets have resorted to filling your television screen with a plethora of experts talking heads that spend their time on air belittling each other and spouting baseless opinion.

We’re setting a bad example here. It sends the message that opinion trumps all and it is fine to belittle anyone that disagrees with you. The last time I checked, the definition of an opinion is, “A view or judgment formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge.” By definition, an opinion (no matter how mind-numbingly uninformed it is) cannot be wrong. If I were to say, for example, that the sky is blue, I would be correct (unless I lived in Seattle where it is gray). That is a fact. Now, if I said that, “I really like blue sky, it’s the best ever,” and you retorted, “You’re an idiot, blue is a crappy color, you craptacularly crappy piece of crap,” we’d have dueling opinions and both of us would be right. Tho’ I’d probably disagree with you on that part about me being a craptacularly crappy piece of crap – unless you cited a scientific study proving that I am indeed such a person.

You’re probably wondering, “So Caruso, what do we do now?” Honestly, I have no idea. If I ruled the world, this study would be the top headline on every news site. It’s the kind of institutional, systemic thing that has long-term implications. Plus, I suspect that if you went back and retested the participants from 20 and 30 years ago, you’d find that their capacity for empathy has diminished. If that’s the case, we’re the most doomed we’ve ever been and you’re a big, fat idiot if you think otherwise**.

*Just so that I don’t come across as a total Methuselah douche, I must disclaim that I have never (EVER) actually yelled at kids to get off my lawn.

**This is sarcasm and your actual level of idiocy may vary.

-Caruso Deluxe


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