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On Our Collective Empathy Fatigue

By Laura Siscoe
10 Mar 2023
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A Vanderbilt University employee was recently lambasted for callousness after utilizing ChatGPT to write a letter to students in the wake of the Michigan State tragedy. While such an action clearly displays poor professional judgment, I think many of us (if we’re honest) can relate to a kind of emotional numbness in the face of yet another instance of suffering and loss in our society. While it is impossible to know if such feelings are what prompted that particular employee’s actions, it is clear enough that many of us currently face a type of emotional fatigue in the face of numerous, seemingly insurmountable problems.

These negative feelings are further amplified if we zoom out of our national landscape and consider the state of the human race at large. The worst earthquake to strike the Middle East in a century further devastated an already impoverished, war-torn population, and there is a constant humdrum of deep injustices such as modern slavery, food and water insecurity, and regional violence in far away places. Human beings, even the most compassionate amongst us, do not have the emotional or cognitive bandwidth to carry the weight of tragedies that fill the world.

This inability can lead to a particular kind of condition, sometimes referred to as empathy fatigue. The condition is a product of being continually subjected to upsetting news or circumstances, paired with an inability to fix the issues at hand. Symptoms of the condition include feeling lackluster about the future, disconnected from those around us, and numb to our emotions. Given we live in a unique historical moment where news from across the world is nearly instantaneously available to us, we have access to an endless stream of information that can serve as fodder for this condition. There is evidence that frequent news consumption stirs up anxiety and raises cortisol levels, but we’re nevertheless consistently inundated with news updates via our phones, computers, and social media feeds. Even if you’ve never experienced the full force of empathy fatigue, you’ve most likely felt at some point a type of powerlessness when it comes to making a meaningful, global impact.

So what is the remedy for these feelings of apathy and detachment? I propose a certain group of liberal skeptics are well-equipped to answer this question.

The communitarian critique of liberalism, while arguably failing in its more ambitious project of offering an alternative to the liberal political order, succeeds in highlighting certain pitfalls of modern life. The movement, primarily comprised of moral and political philosophers, pushes for an increased focus on human nature, contending that our social and political structures must be responsive to this nature if they are to promote human flourishing. Political liberalism is doomed to failure because it fails to accurately account for the conditions of human flourishing, or so the charge goes. Communitarians particularly emphasize the inadequacy of the “autonomous self” conception of the person, arguing that the existence of such an entity is a damaging fiction at the heart of liberalism. As human beings, we are not able to thrive as autonomous entities, but rather we thrive when embedded in networks of meaningful social relationships that help guide and constrain our actions.

Our social networks tend to serve as primary sources of meaning, purpose, and identity in our lives, and thus we also plausibly bear certain duties of service to these communities in turn. Communitarians borrow from Aristotelian thought by contending that personal flourishing is bound up in communal flourishing. Communal and individual health are woven together in a way often rejected or, at least, downplayed in modern society. This emphasis on holistic flourishing places Communitarians at odds with the current political binary that characterizes the United States. Communitarianism is opposed to the rise of the large-scale bureaucratic state associated with the political left, as well as the downstream impacts of consumer capitalism, which tend to erode the cultural particularities of local communities. The preservation and cultivation of rich local cultures is of great importance to Communitarians, and thus their social and political prescriptions are aimed at this end.

So what are the practical takeaways these Communitarian insights offer us in regards to our collective empathy fatigue?

Importantly, a takeaway is not that we should decrease charitable activity in places outside our local community or stop involving ourselves in social and political efforts that seek to enact large-scale change. Rather, Communitarian thought encourages us to embrace our local communities as a grounding anchor and to reflect on what we might morally owe to these individuals or groups in our immediate vicinity. For the mass majority of us, our family, friends, and local communities constitute our primary domains of influence. Despite this reality, a quick look at the relevant statistics seems to suggest many of us are failing to fully invest in these communities. For example, local elections tend to elicit significantly lower voter turnout rates than presidential elections. Grassroots community organizations are oftentimes doing life-changing, transformational work, but statistics show less than a third of Americans regularly volunteer, and rates of charitable giving have sharply declined in recent years. Additionally, data shows that almost one-quarter of people under the age of thirty do not know any of their neighbors, a large statistical increase from older generations.

Don’t let the outcome of empathy fatigue be complacency and detachment but rather local investment. Insofar as the condition is exacerbated by an excess of information about tragedies we can do nothing or very little to change, an increased focus on our local communities can help alleviate feelings of powerlessness that threaten to render us apathetic. The empirical data seems to back this up, as there are demonstrated personal benefits associated with serving one’s community. Thus, both yourself and your community will be better off if you choose to implement some of the insights of the Communitarian movement in your own backyard.

Laura Siscoe is a PhD student at the University of Southern California, where she specializes in social, moral, and political philosophy. She is currently working on her dissertation, which focuses on the implications that increasing sociological diversity has for public reason liberalism.
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