The Demise Of Empathy: Are Indians Forgetting There’s Someone Behind The Screen?

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”- Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird.

Another wasteful hour of boredom is being conquered through social media as you guilelessly flit through this. No points if this seems familiar to you–you’re scrolling through your news feed to see if there is any new interesting development in the world, which could assume significance for the short attention span you can afford. The process of digital toiling is suddenly halted by a terrible photo your high school acquaintance has just uploaded. The “unfortunate upload” is providing you immense sadistic pleasure and your immediate next thought is to send it to your WhatsApp group where you can share the laughter further. This is what our generation has started classifying as “fun”, irrespective of the fact that the photo you just forwarded was of a human being who was always kind to you even when half of your class still loathed you.

If you are surprised by how such behaviour can exist, congratulations- you’re still safe. We’re also not sure you’re real. But if you find yourself in the other category of people who has at least once behaved in a similar manner for “fun,” using social media as a tool, this article is worth your time.

Meriam Webster defines empathy as the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner. It’s considered a vital skill for both the professional and personal life and since a decade, it’s considered to be under attack.

A 2010 American study found in a survey of over 14,000 students over five years that students who passed out of college after 2000 had 40% less empathy than the generation before them. The most common reason for this was attributed to the change in how children spent their free time – from outdoor activities to screens like computers and TV.  The study alarmingly found that young people didn’t even care about “seeming uncaring”. How’s that for convoluted?

Comedian Louis CK weighs in on Empathy

The study was part of a larger narrative which has come about in the past five years on the relationship behind technology and empathy. A series of New York Times articles questioned the relationship between technology and adults and its effect on those around them. The decade old charge of accusing the young of being addicted to technology started proving false as increasingly it was found that the children of technologically savvy parents became restless. ”There’s something that’s so engrossing about the kind of interactions people do with screens that they wall out the world. I’ve talked to children who try to get their parents to stop texting while driving and they get resistance, ‘Oh, just one, just one more quick one, honey.’ It’s like ‘one more drink,” said MIT’s Dr Sherry Turkle. The signs of such dwindling empathy culminated into real-life examples which makes it difficult for anyone to ignore the fac t- empathy is dying.

Caitlin Seida was dressed as Lara Croft for Halloween. A photo was taken of her in the costume which suddenly became a viral sensation. It was uploaded on a page which made fun of people for their appearances and a slew of unflattering comments followed. The comments ranged from mockery of her weight to suggestions that she should kill herself out of shame basically signifying a slew of commentary that basically tried to dictate how Seida should feel about herself. Luckily Caitlin, being a writer herself, was able to reclaim her life from the trolls by writing about the experience online and giving her pain a voice. Sadly, many such people are not lucky enough or willing enough to show the effect online trolling or abuse has on them.

Image courtesy - www.salon.com

Caitlin Seida’s viral image in question. Do we really have a right to dictate how other people should perceive themselves? Image courtesy – www.salon.com

The story of Justine Sacco too is a perfect example of how internet opportunism and starving media news can create a personal havoc for someone. Justine Sacco made an ill-advised attempt at humor in 2013 when she tweeted- “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m White!”. The tweet was featured by Gawker as soon as it was up as an example of racism. The tweet garnered massive re-tweets and replies while Sacco was in flight, oblivious to the online storm her tweet had created. She was fired from her job for the tweets, her family in South Africa expressed great shame in being associated with her and she battled public and personal humiliation. The vindictively racist users still exist and racism saw an even uglier turn in the real world in 2014, but Justine Sacco, who thought she sent out a tweet mocking white privilege, ended up being unemployed and publicly vilified . Her story was so devastating to hear, that Sam Biddle, the writer at Gawker who featured her tweet which lead it to become viral, issued an article apologizing and covering the effect of “Twitter Activism” on her life.

This would be easy to dismiss as a “Western Problem”. But as the second largest country in terms of mobile phone usage alone, India simply cannot afford to do that, especially with increasingly uncomfortable examples coming forth. A 2012 Microsoft study ranked India 3rd in the Global Cyber-Bullying List with 53% of the children aged 8-17 admitting that they were victims of cyber bullying. A 2014 study by McAfee stated that 45% of the teens and tweens surveyed in Chennai confessed to having cyber-bullied someone attacking either their intelligence or appearance. If those statistics are not convincing enough for you, let’s look at how India uses Twitter.

Twitter is used by almost 22.2 million Indians, marking its significance as a platform which bought famous personalities and brands in contact with the common man. The medium was quickly embraced by Indian celebrities-from actors , cricketers and politicians, even being used by our current Prime Minister to reach out to the Indian public. The huge amount of interaction would often consist of a fair amount of trolls and abuses, sometimes for the most ludicrous reasons. Take for example Buzzfeed India Editor, Rega Jha’s tweet which became a national trending topic just last Sunday.

Image Source: Twitter

Image Source: Twitter

Image Source: Twitter

Image Source: Twitter

The backlash faced quickly escalated from ludicrous to abusive. Can you imagine a single such instance if he/she was forced to meet Jha personally?

If we are to take a moment to be logical, a broad range of reactions come in mind for the hecklers -“Why did THIS bother you so much?”, “Was so much time and attention on this worth it?” and ” Where does this patriotism go when our soldiers are beheaded at the border?”. But a glaring question still remains  - why is it so easy to be insensitive and demeaning? Do we ever think of how the person at the receiving end of our words or their kin may feel?

Or take the case 0f Ashoke Pandit’s views about the AIB Roast.

Image Source: Twitter

Image Source: Twitter

The debate is still on – has the power of online anonymity bought out the worst in good, decent human beings or has it just provided a tool for those who were already cruel? This gets further complicated in a country like India where the government often takes the easier, non-antagonizing route of bans and curbs on freedom of speech rather than a culture of evolved debate and solution.

But perhaps there is a simpler solution each one of us could try–a devolution in our interface with technology. Perhaps a simple “downtime” for our personal lives where we meet and face human beings, and regain the lost empathy. But if that is too much of a lifestyle change for some, perhaps we can simply imagine things from the perspective of the person on the other end of the screen – a being just as complicated and human as you.

Words: Devang Pathak

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