The End of General Civility, and the Rise of Selective Empathy
April 15, 2019 8:34 AM   Subscribe

... there's a point at which empathy doesn't even look like the kind of universal empathy I was taught in school. There is a natural way that empathy gets triggered in the brain — your pain centers light up when you see another person suffering. But out in the world it starts to look more like tribalism, a way to keep reinforcing your own point of view and blocking out any others. The End of Empathy is part of NPR's Civility Wars series, in which NPR has been traveling the United States to explore how people are grappling with the idea of civility in polarizing times.

Civility Wars posts to date:
posted by filthy light thief (31 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
The NPR piece has several specific, actionable ideas about how to approach such a conversation. But if one side is open and brave and modest and whatnot, but the other one isn't, such a conversation will only serve to paint the former as weak and reinforce the ideas (such as they are) of the latter.

It's instructions for how you, too, in your personal life can emulate the success of NPR.

(Wait -- I fell for it, didn't I?)
posted by wenestvedt at 9:03 AM on April 15, 2019 [15 favorites]

My take is that the kind of civility they long for the return of has never existed. What did exist were stronger power hierarchies that kept certain unprivileged groups in line, for fear for their lives, and that this is what those in power miss. That’s not to say that he unprivileged no longer fear for their lives, they do. But I do think there is a more casual pushback against the idea that ones “betters” deserve respect simply because of structural characteristics like their race or wealth and absent actually being good people.
posted by scantee at 9:14 AM on April 15, 2019 [68 favorites]

If civility doesn't obtain justice, it's time for incivility. I dunno what else to say.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:18 AM on April 15, 2019 [31 favorites]

But out in the world it starts to look more like tribalism, a way to keep reinforcing your own point of view and blocking out any others.

This is a perfect demonstration of why the concept of "tribalism" needs to be killed with fire. It's getting tiresome to have people complaining that bad faith actors are treated as such.
posted by NoxAeternum at 9:18 AM on April 15, 2019 [9 favorites]

I don't think civility is "under siege" (can we stop with the unhelpful war metaphors) now anymore than when Preston Brooks nearly killed his fellow Congressman Charles Sumner with a gold handled cane in the Senate chamber.

In my experience, as a brown atheist woman, the people calling most loudly for a "return to civility" are also the people least likely to extend empathy to anyone who does not look like them, does not pray like them, does not go to the same colleges as them. I actually find "civility" discourse a useful shibboleth for who to avoid.
posted by basalganglia at 9:20 AM on April 15, 2019 [65 favorites]

Open, brave and modest. I was reading about Dolores Huerta, on her birthday, which was April 10th. The San Francisco police broke two of her ribs and ruptured her spleen in1988. Supposedly these are even more uncivil times. Be careful who you bother to reason with, it is far from over. You may have missed the memo, people are working night and day to bring about the end of the world. To these, peacemakers are seen as doing the devil's work.
posted by Oyéah at 9:22 AM on April 15, 2019 [10 favorites]

For me the question is: is civility valued for its own sake, or for the sake of its consequences? Or is it, like health, both desirable in and of itself, and also for its results?
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:28 AM on April 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
posted by biogeo at 9:30 AM on April 15, 2019 [13 favorites]

Reading the piece, it's clear that neither the author nor the expert really understand why the concept of "universal empathy" wound up being rejected - because we realized that asking the abused to emphasize with their abusers is, in itself, a form of abuse. It is ridiculous to say that one need put themselves in the shoes of a Nazi before saying that fascist thought is wrong.
posted by NoxAeternum at 9:42 AM on April 15, 2019 [29 favorites]

Civility depends on having a substantial number of interests in common, which is why people who, eg, live in a fragile ecosystem together may be able to be civil across differences, and why the very rich tend to be civil to each other whether they are Democrats or Republicans, parlor pinks or white supremacists.

If we want genuine national civility, we need genuine common interests first. Right now we have few, and those declining.
posted by Frowner at 9:42 AM on April 15, 2019 [17 favorites]

I did think the Invisibilia piece was interesting in its theory that empathy was a specific response to a world situation. Certainly a lot of Cold War peace work involved fighting the propagandistic view of the Other as enemy. Seeing the people of the Soviet Union as separate from their leadership and attempting to make person-to-person connections was a big thing even up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. (Sting's hit "Russians" was maybe the biggest pop-culture element of this, but it went a lot deeper.)

This tactic hinged on the perception of the Russians/Ukranians/etc as captive, oppressed peoples, as opposed to the Germans who were seen to have chosen and supported the Nazi leadership during the war. Of course, after the war, when we had to be friends with the Germans again (at least the West Germans), we had to change the narrative--and perhaps that helped lead to the story we told ourselves during the Cold War.

Now we have somewhat competing narratives. Are conservatives who believe horrible, toxic things just deluded by the Powers at Fox News and their red-state upbringings? Or are they truly responsible for the hate they spew? The Invisiblia episode showed both sides (so NPR), and then said "it feels kind of icky to let this toxic asshole tell his story on his own terms with all his lies unchallenged." YA THINK?!?!

We're in fight mode, and we have to win to protect fundamental rights, values, Democracy itself. We don't have room for empathy. Once we win, and we have to live with the losers, we can think about empathy again. But we have to beat them and crush their spirits first. It made sense to be a pacifist in the Cold War, during the days of Mutually Assured Destruction. But now, Nazis get punches, not sympathy.
posted by rikschell at 9:51 AM on April 15, 2019 [11 favorites]

scantee: My take is that the kind of civility they long for the return of has never existed.

The first article cites research to say things have changed:
An evolved person was an empathetic person, choosing understanding over fear.

Then, more than a decade ago, a certain suspicion of empathy started to creep in, particularly among young people. One of the first people to notice was Sara Konrath, an associate professor and researcher at Indiana University. Since the late 1960s, researchers have surveyed young people on their levels of empathy, testing their agreement with statements such as: "It's not really my problem if others are in trouble and need help" or "Before criticizing somebody I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in their place."

Konrath collected decades of studies (Semantics Scholar; full report as PDF) and noticed a very obvious pattern. Starting around 2000, the line starts to slide. More students say it's not their problem to help people in trouble, not their job to see the world from someone else's perspective. By 2009, on all the standard measures, Konrath found, young people on average measure 40 percent less empathetic than my own generation — 40 percent!

It's strange to think of empathy – a natural human impulse — as fluctuating in this way, moving up and down like consumer confidence. But that's what happened. Young people just started questioning what my elementary school teachers had taught me.
That 2000 timeframe is interesting to me, because it brings to mind Newt Gingrich's role in political polarization (Wikipedia). He alone doesn't get credit for the Us vs Them current norms, but it sounds like he was a main motivator of "if you're not with us, you're against us" in terms of political tribalism and a sharp reduction in collaboration.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:59 AM on April 15, 2019 [13 favorites]

The first article cites research to say things have changed

I read that, but I'm going to have to back up scantree here: there has never been a time in this country where people were actually required to be civil to PoC, women, LGBTQA, etc. Steps toward it, (feminism, political correctness, etc.), immediately became galvanizing forces among authoritarians to maintain the status quo via any means, up to and including terrorism. Seriously, the preference was terrorism over having some mutual respect for people.

Whether things are changing or not, lamentations about a loss of civility are missing the point. It's not coming back in the old form because it never served the bulk of the population anyway. That's why it was never reciprocal in the first place: civility is a tool, and not everybody was ever forced to pick it up.

I do think that article accidentally hit on why things are changing and missed the memo though: they talk about empathy being pushed as a cultural norm over fear of nuclear war. The thing is, coercion is a great temporary solution to problems. If someone points a gun at me, I'm probably giving them my wallet. But the second the threat is removed, the behavior will be rejected hard. As soon as that gunman turns around, I'm going to kill him if I can.

In our culture, civility has mostly come via coercive social pressure. It's only natural that as those threats are reduced, (self selection of social groups simply removing elements from populations due to online communication being key, IMO), people would slowly shed the whole thing as much as possible because for most people, it's not an affirmative choice anyway.

Civility depends on having a substantial number of interests in common

Right. Conflating understanding with cooperation is another thing going on here. Willing cooperation comes from mutual benefit more than anything else.
posted by mordax at 10:30 AM on April 15, 2019 [17 favorites]

I think radical kindness (for me, epitomized by the golden rule) is much more worth working towards than civility. That’s not to say there is no place for beautiful manners, the goal of which is to keep others at ease. But it should not be a priority over justice and equality, and sometimes those goals conflict.
posted by sallybrown at 10:32 AM on April 15, 2019 [10 favorites]

Do you truly believe that Boomers and older Xers are more empathetic than young people? I certainly doesn’t know of any evidence that their behaviors, rather than what they self-report on a survey, show more emphathy for the Other than younger generations.

The study you cite and my claim are perfectly in line with one another. Older generations simply don’t see the Other as human. When asked to “put themselves in someone else’s shoes” they can only picture someone like themselves. Of course they have empathy for that person, since they are essentially expressing self-empathy. Younger generations are the first to be forced to truly see those outside of the ruling class as having a legitimate expectation of respect. Why would it surprise us that the powerful among them are now revising the rules so that they do not have to give what they feel entitled to get from others?
posted by scantee at 10:34 AM on April 15, 2019 [19 favorites]

Does the way people answer survey questions correlate with how they behave, though? Like, are we seeing an increase in the bystander effect that would align with how people answered these surveys? My limited experience with kids and schools is that the anti-bullying message is actually really getting through, and the kids I've been around are much better at treating each other with empathy, especially kids who are different. Seeing e.g. a kid with autism being accomodated in a play group is something I've seen more than once and can't imagine it happening when I was young a couple of decades ago.
posted by Space Coyote at 10:35 AM on April 15, 2019 [15 favorites]

Civility as order is enforced manners, something that has long since shown it's a way for power to maintain itself and control any discussion of values. Civility has use as a way of engaging with others as long as it's understood that civility isn't just language and decorum in public performance but a set of beliefs and actions that show a belief in respect, both for other than like you and as a demand of respect for those like you. Without that respect being accorded both ways, there is no real civility, just performance and control.
posted by gusottertrout at 10:43 AM on April 15, 2019 [6 favorites]

Doesn’t the end of general civility also have something to do with the rise of multiculturalism? “Civility” isn’t a universal, but culturally conditioned, and culturally relative.

As an Englishman who spends a deal of time in Scandinavia I like to think of myself as unfalteringly polite, but it’s still possible to come up against the edges of it and be rude without even thinking about it, and take offence too.

It’s easy to be “civil” when we know what the rules are, but different values, and increasingly different politics means that this is something we can’t take for granted, to say nothing of people who actually don’t wish us well or even grant us our dignity. How do we tolerate these people?

Given the complexity of this it’s not surprising we feel the ontological strain of all this and yearn for situations in which people are just simply genuinely “nice”?
posted by Middlemarch at 10:57 AM on April 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

Time again I find myself thinking of Fred Clark's blog entry "Empathy and Epistemic Closure" :
Empathy, at its most basic level, is epistemic. It is sometimes discussed as though it is identical to love, respect or regard for others, but really it precedes that. It is what makes such love, respect or regard for others possible — what informs it. Empathy is a way of seeing, and therefore a way of knowing.
It is entirely possible to have a high degree of empathy towards actors in bad faith. To see the pain and life's etching of suffering and mental heuristics and deep structures that lead to what they profess to believe. And to further understand that "civility" is not the empathetic response. Treating it as if it is, is part of that misidentifying that Oh Whither Civility pieces are prone to.
posted by Drastic at 11:24 AM on April 15, 2019 [12 favorites]

I don't think civility is "under siege" (can we stop with the unhelpful war metaphors) now anymore than when Preston Brooks nearly killed his fellow Congressman Charles Sumner with a gold handled cane in the Senate chamber.

Yeah, I find the media's continual isn't-it-awful-ing around how "divided" (another nice equal-time, not-taking-sides word) the US has gotten to be beyond tiring.

The worst is whenever someone says that politics or culture have become "more divided than ever." Gimme a break. What a moronic statement—the US was literally divided at gunpoint due to irreconciliable political differences, and we fought the bloodiest war in our history resolving the issue. That's what a total breakdown of civility looks like.

Also, it seems that the part of "civility" that overlaps with "politeness" actually becomes more codified and more rigid as the underlying tensions between groups increase. Incidents like Brooks v. Sumner are remarkable in that they were remarkable: for the most part, people in Washington, and other places where the two sides had to interact, didn't get violent, and they were civil to each other. It was, I'd imagine, a very frosty and grudgingly-extended civility in many cases, but civility nonetheless. You tend to be very civil, if you know that saying the wrong thing could get you killed.

So, trying to use civility as a barometer for how close we are to the edge of some sort of social precipice, doesn't seem very productive.

That said, the 19th century comparisons are only valid so far; there's no single, overarching issue that clearly dominates the discourse, as slavery did. Sometimes I think abortion comes close—it's similarly irreconciliable on a fundamental level, with no real way to square the two sides ideologically—but it's not like half the country has an economy dependent on forcibly continuing unwanted pregnancies or something (well, I can think of some indirect ways, but none of them are like actual chattel slavery), so I doubt they'd go to the mat for it to the tune of a million dead and their cities burning. But I guess you never really know.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:40 AM on April 15, 2019 [6 favorites]

I feel like from where I sit in the LGBTQ community, that there's a growing sense of fragility bolstered by gatekeeping. That often manifests as harassment, brigading, doxing and trolling. So while younger people might be more willing to vote for things like The Equality Act, they're also more willing to tell me that I'm a bad queer person who doesn't deserve things like The Equality Act (wrong type of trans, wrong type of multisexual, passing much of the time). And that's not touching the very young and very radicalized alt-right and manosphere.

So while things are changing, I'm not convinced they're necessarily changing for the better. Maybe the concept of "civility" and "empathy" needs to be taken apart and examined in detail. I see multiple sides as a participant in direct action and a target of online harassment.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 12:16 PM on April 15, 2019 [7 favorites]

My therapist explains the contemporary anti-empathy trend like this (what follows is my words to make it concise). I am in a conflict situation, I personalize it as an aggressor versus victim dynamic in which I am the victim, and that happens because I project my unresolved ongoing internalized oppression onto the actual, new situation. So instead of repeating this dynamic, I could practice working on refocusing the situation as one of a dynamic between two equals. If it were not a racist/homophobic situation, I would probably respond differently, more emapthically and less easily manipulated into feelings of invalidation.

It's like a modernized form of assertiveness training. It emphasizes a shared egalitarianism and treating situations at the interpersonal level as between two human beings and holding myself to that standard, i.e. it is the "humane approach", in my therapists exact concluding words. There are more details that I left out, but that's the broad picture. I imagine it as, what would Captain Picard do? Would he be aggressive or defensive even if he thought he was right? Would that work for him? Etc. It's a rationale for taking the high road, if that's something I want. (But I think that too contains moot assumptions.)

I'm sharing this because on the one hand I had to be told about this different way of trying to do things. On the other hand, I am basically not allowed to question the therapy on this for the same reasons mentioned, that the ideas in the article are blinkered by its own power and privilege, and false equivalencing, and so forth. So it's been interesting for myself on this personal level.
posted by polymodus at 2:27 PM on April 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

>For me the question is: is civility valued for its own sake, or for the sake of its consequences? Or is it, like health, both desirable in and of itself, and also for its results?

To riff on this: it's already been touched on in this thread, but there's a distinction between 'civility as a performance of manners' and 'civility as a bilateral trust-building mechanism'.

The latter is basically essential to finding our way to common cause. The tricky thing about our current situation is that, on the internet, your words aren't just read by the person you're responding to. I'm responding to a comment from the man of twists and turns , but they're certainly not the only person who will read this comment, even though it's really easy to envision that I'm writing this to an audience of 1. The reality is that the people who will read this comment will be all over the place ideologically.

When we show civility on the internet at least, we're not just showing it to the person we're interacting with, we're also showing it to all of the lurkers that take one side or another in the debate. The people that post in this thread are literally the top 1% of the internet in the sense that only about 1% of people ever write anything online. The real impact of civility/incivility is literally invisible from the perspective of twitter/FB/reddit/media in general. It's effects are only observable secondarily from changes in behavior from people who aren't terminally online.

Unfortunately, hot takes play well on the internet because they grab your attention, and the fact that they show up so frequently normalizes some behaviors and attitudes that then show up in real life and have real consequences. This is the animating mechanism behind the alt-right, but I also don't think it's limited to them. Several of my activist friends have become far more simplistic, moralizing, and confrontational in their attitudes in the last few years, and not because of any particular ideological conviction about making the comfortable uncomfortable, but rather because confrontation is now the rhetorical water in which they swim every day.
posted by cirgue at 2:39 PM on April 15, 2019 [12 favorites]

Staircase addendum:

Civility isn't a universal policy and it's not an either-or thing. As a bilateral trust-building mechanism, it's something that happens between two parties iteratively, and therefore is something that sometimes happens and sometimes doesn't.

I think it is probably a good idea to create as many opportunities for civil discourse as possible. This isn't to say we should be civil toward fascists, it's to say that we should seek out and cultivate good-faith discourse with anyone and everyone who's not a fascist, and 'people who aren't fascists' is a way bigger tent than it appears on the internet.
posted by cirgue at 6:47 PM on April 15, 2019 [5 favorites]

I can start with a presumptive civility, a generalized respect towards people, and then drop it quick as soon as they behave badly.
posted by gryftir at 5:21 AM on April 16, 2019 [2 favorites]

NPR's "whither civility" team should devote an episode to the superb Web video series on "The Alt-Right Playbook", which points out not only that for many, arguing in bad faith is the entire point, but also that showing one cares about an issue is interpreted as an admission of defeat at the outset.

The point NPR and much of the fainting-couch brigade misses is that refusing to argue in good faith is uncivil, regardless of how superficially polite one may be. Mitch McConnell may coat his words in the tradition of Senate comity, but his relentless dishonesty drips with contempt for the very notion that he and his Republican lackeys treat Democrats -- that is, the representatives of the majority of the people in this nation -- as equals. And why not? He knows that he isn't going to pass his agenda honestly.

(You know what else is uncivil, NPR? Continuing to pretend that Republicans saying "Democrat Party" is just a slip of the tongue, and so airing that deliberate insult just as if you were Rush Limbaugh.)
posted by Gelatin at 6:31 AM on April 16, 2019 [10 favorites]

scantee: The study you cite and my claim are perfectly in line with one another. Older generations simply don’t see the Other as human.

I don't agree with your broad-brush statement on older generations, but I agree your notion of who civility applies to having changed. Anti-sodomy laws come to mind, which explicitly made gay men "deviants." In comparison, Stephen Colbert noted his own pleasure at societal progress that Pete Buttigieg's sexual orientation was "the third thing I learned about you." That's not to say that LGBTQ+ people are treated equally, but sexual orientation is steadily becoming less of a topic of discussion, particularly for younger people.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:26 AM on April 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

One way to approach this idea of civility in political discourse is to ask how we could talk to each other and treat each other in such a way that mods did not have to intervene. What would that look like? What rules would we need to follow? What habits would we need to cultivate so that people who disagree could talk about their differences without the whole discussion crashing and burning?

Of course civility is a two-way street. But sometimes you have to show the way by just showing up to the lunch counter, politely ordering a sandwich, and not throwing punches when people start pouring drinks on you. Sometimes, living by example is the best form of principled struggle.
posted by skoosh at 9:07 AM on April 19, 2019

Of course civility is a two-way street. But sometimes you have to show the way by just showing up to the lunch counter, politely ordering a sandwich, and not throwing punches when people start pouring drinks on you. Sometimes, living by example is the best form of principled struggle.

I'm sorry, but no, people shouldn't have to put up with abuse to have their humanity recognized. It is tiresome to keep hearing how it's the responsibility of the dispossessed to face depersonalization with silence.
posted by NoxAeternum at 9:27 AM on April 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

What habits would we need to cultivate so that people who disagree could talk about their differences without the whole discussion crashing and burning?

Let's stop with the euphemistic language. When one side is trying to argue about the personhood of the other, civility went out the door, never to return. The only way to maintain civility there is to never have the argument in the first place.
posted by NoxAeternum at 9:30 AM on April 19, 2019 [3 favorites]

I'm going to link back to the points made in Laurie Penny's "No, I Will Not Debate You." If we recognize that a large part of "debate" is actually performative or political theater, then there's no reason why me must engage. I work in education, so it's my biased view that moderation and leadership are critically necessary for productive discussions to happen beyond a handful of persons. That might be a teacher or a barkeep, or just the willingness of a person to walk away from the conversation.

The lunch counter protests were not about civility or dialogue on their own (and they were not broadly perceived as civil). They were part of larger campaigns of protest and electoral activism. The immediate goal was to get arrested for violating segregation laws in a way that couldn't be rationalized as some other crime. No one expected department store managers to engage in dialogue that didn't involve a courtroom or city hall.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 10:55 AM on April 19, 2019 [4 favorites]

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