Selective empathy: Its relevance in the modern world

  • 5 min to read
Selective Empathy

An illustration of the disparity in public attention between the Notre Dame fire and the Amazon fires.

Tragedies happen all over the world. As humans, we have the ability to feel what others feel, or to “put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.” We can imagine what it would be like to be in that situation, and this is generally the main driver when we send aid other people. This is called empathy, and it is one of the most important qualities we possess as humans.

What we know

I conducted a survey amongst the students and faculty of the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa to see if and what people in our community knew about selective empathy already. Out of 32 respondents, 43.8% said they knew what it is, while 28.1% said they didn’t and another 28.1% said they weren’t too sure. 

This is a term that has been going around lately. I found out about it during the social media movement to create awareness around the Sudanese massacre. I knew that the media benefited some groups and stories over others, but I didn’t know of a term to describe this trend. 

Like me, even though under half of the people that responded to the survey weren’t familiar with the term, 93.8% of all participants agree that some tragic news get more attention than others. But why is that? Could it be that such an essential ability such as empathy has become selective? Can we only feel empathetic when humans meet a certain criteria? If this is the case, it is pertinent to look at it in today’s world. 

Universal vs. selective empathy

To be selective about what we care about may be a good way to cope with a society that is constantly handing us information. However, we should also analyze what we invest ourselves in so we can make this choice more consciously.

According to Jason Kottke, a respected blogger, “over the past 20 years, the kind of empathy practiced by many Americans has shifted from a universal empathy --- putting yourself into the shoes of someone you don’t know and might even dislike -- to a more selective empathy that only works with people on your team.” This suggests that the fact that we empathize with some people more than we do with others has more to do with prejudice and relatability than with a coping mechanism.

How the media enforces this

When conducting the survey, I asked for reasons why people think that some tragic news get more media coverage than others. A very clear and concise answer that highlights the point of this article was “The Western world occupies a privileged position in news media coverage, so other parts of the world tend to be secondary or viewed as less important. There’s also a normalization of catastrophe in so-called third world nations, so that Westerners are taught not to be shocked by violence or disaster in those areas. Finally, the people who occupy those spaces matter as well: straight white cis men hold a place of privilege and thus news concerning them will always be the most covered, so news regarding women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, etc. will always fall to the wayside.”

I thought this answer touched on some very important points that derive on how selective empathy is born. It also points out that there is a “normalization of catastrophe” in developing countries, which leads to Western and other developed nations to not be as affected when hearing about tragedy in these places.

The normalization of violence leads to desensitization. If news outlets say that the people in Africa are always suffering, then it is likely that when we hear about their wars we will assume it as a normal thing. If we cared about every tragic thing in the world, we would probably be exhausted and depressed by now. In fact, there is such a thing as activism burnout, which Paul Gorsk, the founder and director of Equity Literacy Institute, defines in the Journal of Social Movement Studies as “a condition in which the accumulative stress associated with activism becomes so debilitating that once-committed activists are forced to scale back on or disengage from their activism.” 

This doesn’t mean we should care about either nothing or everything. Rather, we should be able to detect the filters to our empathy and the roots from which they grow in order to understand the “why” behind them and decide more consciously which causes we believe are worth getting invested in.

Where does my empathy get its selectiveness?

All these ideas might come from a variety of sources, but a lot of them take root in our everyday experiences and what we consume through the media. For example, if we constantly hear on the news about Islamic terrorists, this may make us way less likely to empathize with Muslim people. The people we see everyday can influence our empathetic experiences as well. If we live in a community that is predominantly a certain race, when encountered with another one, it might be difficult for us to empathize with them.

This is not necessarily always a bad thing, and it does not inherently make us racist. It is natural for the mind to have reaction mechanisms for what we are and are not used to. 

Becoming universally empathic

How can we change this narrative of selective empathy? A great way to start is by exposing ourselves to diversity: watching movies from other countries, reading news about places far away, and meeting people from different cultures. There are many benefits to this besides broadening your empathetic spectrum. 

Many modern businesses talk about how diversity benefits their environment, mentioning things such as how a diverse environment leads to improved creativity, a wider range of skills and improvement of cultural insights, amongst other things. The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa has helped me experience diversity a lot more, and as a student here, you can reap the benefits that come with it as well. There are opportunities for studying abroad, international students, foreign language classes and other things. As an international student, my empathetic spectrum has broadened significantly after attending school here, as I’ve been exposed to many cultures.

Procuring our empathetic skills should be a priority in this day and age. There are many examples where selective empathy have come into play, many of which tie in racist issues. A very well-known example of selective empathy is the comparison between the Notre Dame fire and the Sudanese massacre. Even though both are important, it is astonishing how much money and sympathy a cathedral raised within a matter of hours, while there are terrible massacres and wars going on elsewhere. Belen Fernandez of Al Jazeera, a Qatari news organization, explained in an article how it is easier for us as Western citizens to feel empathy for one over the other: “it's pretty emotionally straightforward to grieve over a Very Symbolic Building, one that has been firmly established in the international consciousness and visited by loads of fellow humans, particularly those belonging to social classes that possess the economic wherewithal to travel. For US citizens like me, at least, it's certainly easier than contemplating how to go about grieving Palestinians or Yemenis when my own government is highly implicated in their murder. And while former US president Barack Obama somberly mused re: Notre Dame that "it's in our nature to mourn when we see history lost", it's apparently not in our nature to mourn when we drop 26,171 bombs on the world in a single year.”

It is easier to empathize with things closer to us in proximity and culture. As people who have been born and raised in good conditions, it is hard to picture ourselves in the midst of war and destruction, whereas mourning over lost art is way more known to us. As stated before, this does not inherently make us bad people. However, our first instinct does not have to remain our opinion, and that’s where we have the power to change.

We should all make a commitment to research, read, expose ourselves to diversity, listen to whatever news is going on, not only where we live, but everywhere. Today’s world is in urgent need of better critical thinking skills, and the place to begin is with ourselves. Why am I feeling this way? Does something else deserve my attention? Am I being led by my prejudices? Assessing ourselves is a huge step to creating the reality and world we want to live in, as well as creating awareness about causes we believe are not getting enough attention in order to start diminishing the selectivity of our empathy, and to turn it universal once again.