Screenshot of interview with Donald Trump and Jonathan Swan

Lessons in Empathy

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By Steven A. Smith

em·pa·thy (empəTHē): The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

–Oxford Dictionary

I have been thinking a lot about empathy lately.

In my mass media classes at the University of Idaho, I taught empathy as an important journalistic quality, a vital human value, and an essential learned skill. But there is a difference between the academic contemplation of empathy as an idea and the consideration of empathy – or lack of it – in human practice and on a mass scale.

Disclaimer: I am a journalist and so a generalist. I certainly am not a psychologist. But I do not think you need a degree in psychology to recognize that our society is experiencing an empathy crisis.

Psychologists identify three types of human empathy. (Here is an easy guide to the subject)

Types of Empathy

Cognitive empathy,” as the name suggests is the mental process of putting yourself in the shoes of someone else so as to understand their point of view. This is empathy as a skill that can be learned. Most of us, as adults, have empathy of this type. When we read about institutional racism or economic dislocation or the effects of a pandemic on our most vulnerable, we can relate in some way. And we have learned the appropriate responses.

“I support you.” “I am so sorry.” “We are praying for you.”

Of course, cognitive empathy can be genuine, sincerely heartfelt, or it can be scripted. When a National Rifle Association official, in response to a mass shooting, says “our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims,” that is scripted empathy, response seemingly without genuine feeling and most people see it for what it is.

Psychologists call the second form of empathy “emotional empathy,” essentially an inherent quality that allows some people to share the emotions of others. Emotional empathy cannot be learned. Most of us have some level of emotional empathy – we cry at a distant relative’s wedding or sob at the funeral of someone we barely know. But people can also be overwhelmed by those emotions, essentially paralyzed and unable to act.

The third form of empathy, according to psychologists, is “compassionate empathy,” the more common quality that allows us to relate to another’s feelings and emotions but also allows for some action in response. Compassionate empathy, to be genuine, must lead to some meaningful action – you serve in a homeless shelter, participate in BLM protests, maybe contribute to a cause or candidate.

Lack of Empathy

Psychologists have terms for those who lack some elements of basic human empathy. They might be referred to as sociopaths or even psychopaths. Lack of empathy is considered a form of mental illness.

Which is precisely what worries me these days.

Are the anti-maskers lacking in empathy for those desperately concerned about contracting Covid-19? Some may simply be unthinking, misinformed, or careless. Those are certainly empathetic deficiencies given the circumstances. But the careless and the thoughtless may demonstrate considerable empathy in other circumstances, such as in the aftermath of a terrible natural disaster when they come to the aid of their neighbors.

Some oppose masks for other reasons, perhaps for political or economic self-interest. Their conscious decision to put others at risk demonstrates a lack of empathy that can border on sociopathy.

Still, an effort to consider empathy and the lack of it in large populations is an exercise in assumptions and generalizations.

Trump and Lack of Empathy

What about lack of empathy in an individual where personal qualities are on display for all to see all the time? What about President Trump?

If you have not already done so, watch Jonathan Swan’s Axios interview with President Trump, conducted on July 28 and aired Aug. 3. (Here is the link or watch below).

It is an extraordinary interview, maybe the most revelatory of the Trump presidency. And throughout, the empathy subtext is unavoidable.

Swan pushes the president on Trump’s baseless contention that the pandemic is under control.

“How? A thousand Americans are dying a day,” Swan asks?

Trump responds, “They are dying. That’s true. And you — it is what it is.”

Given the platform, given the charts and graphs he brought with him, given an opportunity to at least say the right thing, that is all the empathy he could muster.

“It is what it is.”

What do we call someone who lacks empathy? Watch the Swan interview and decide for yourself.

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About Steven A Smith

Steven A. Smith is clinical associate professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho having retired from full time teaching at the end of May 2020.

Smith is former editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. As editor, Smith supervised all news and editorial operations on all platforms with a staff ranging from more than 140 in 2002 to 104 at the time of his resignation in October 2008. Prior to joining The Spokesman-Review, Smith was editor for two years at The Statesman Journal, a Gannett newspaper in Salem, Oregon, and was for five years editor and vice president of The Gazette, a Freedom Communications newspaper in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Newspaper Management Center Advanced Executive Program and a mid-career development program at Duke University. He holds an MA in communication from The Ohio State University where he was a Kiplinger Fellow, and a BS in journalism from the University of Oregon.

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