While on my way to the CoLab this afternoon, a thought struck me as a driver tailgated me across the Memorial Avenue bridge. It feels like, and I’m sure there must be some sort of empirical data to support this, that the faster we move, the less empathy we have towards other people. Take a look at people who fly by on 581, cutting others off and waving a middle finger. There’s a profound lack of empathy and a concordant increase in unmitigated rage. Why is this? What is it about quickness that causes a decline in empathy?
It seems to me that empathy is something that requires the opposite of speed. Empathy requires that you slow down and process information, feelings, people, and events. Driving on an interstate, as an example, is the exact opposite of requiring thought. Who hasn’t zoned out for stretches of long drives on the interstate, all the while maintaining highway speeds? Driving slowly, in a residential neighborhood, as an example, requires slow speed, so that you can be aware of people who may be near the street or the itinerant cat or dog crossing. And how often are you flipped off by someone going 20 or 25 in the middle of your neighborhood? I’d be willing to bet that the odds are substantially lower than your odds of being flipped off on a high-speed thoroughfare.
I think there’s an economic component to this, as well. In a society that values the, erm, virtues of untrammeled capitalism, we are taught to accept efficiencies, that efficiency is a benefit to us. But is it? Efficiency requires the opposite of empathy. Empathy is, in itself, an incredibly inefficient act on its face. Empathy requires slowness, reducing the speed of the thought process to something that requires thought. Increasing thought reduces the speed at which things may be done, because we consider consequences of our acts upon others. I think this is best exemplified by the deniers of global warming/climate change. Considering climate change as a fact requires change and a heavy dose of thought with respect to the actions of the past, present, and, ultimately, future. Lacking the will or time or whatever to stop and consider impacts reduces our capacity for empathy towards future generations, the progeny who will be receiving a planet dealing with the loss of glaciers, rising sea-levels, food shortages, and increasingly extreme weather patterns.
People who buy into the efficiencies model, well, they’re people like Senator James Inhofe. His demonstration of the purported lack of climate change, this:
demonstrates a hardened ignorance and unwillingness to bend to demonstrable facts, supported by measurable data. It also demonstrates a total lack of empathy, a temper-tantrum one might expect of a five-year old who wants to tell his/her parents that s/he hasn’t drawn all over the walls while still holding the red and green crayons for all to see.
This might sound like some sort of lily-livered, bleeding-heart liberal screed. In a way, it is. We have impact on other people constantly, just by interacting with them. That interaction can be a hug, a horn honking or an angry middle finger. It’s time that we start slowing down at least some of the time – consider the impact of action on everything we touch. Because everything’s moving so damn quickly. And it’s making us less capable of reaching other humans.