Is Empathy Dead?

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When I heard about Lane Graves, the toddler killed by an alligator at Disney, I almost threw up.

My son is 23-months old, roughly the same age as Lane. I have a picture of him hugging a teddy bear he got for Christmas. His face is beaming as he holds it tight, both arms wrapped around the bear, pressing every inch of it against his little body in a moment of pure love and enjoyment. The image of my son with his teddy bear seared into my mind as I read of Lane’s fate.

Then I entered a very dark place.

I wondered what was going through Lane’s mind as the alligator grabbed him. How confused and scared he must have been as it dragged him underwater, wanting only his mother or father. Wondering where they were, not knowing what was happening. Knowing only terror. And pain.

That’s when I started crying.

I felt horrible for Lane’s parents, knowing their anguish must be insurmountable. I didn’t lash out, asking in anger “Where were they?” or shout “It was their fault!”

But others did.

After every tragedy, the Internet is where people express empathy, understanding, and unfortunately, ignorance and anger.

A three-year-old falls into a gorilla pen at a zoo, and people yell “How dare they shoot the gorilla!”

A toddler is snatched at the shore of a man-made lagoon, so the indignant post, “The signs said no swimming!”

A nightclub is shot up in Orlando, and a pastor in California, a supposed man of God, tells his congregation: “I’m kind of upset [the shooter] didn’t finish the job.”

If you spend any time online, you’d think humanity is at its nadir; people revel in self-righteous attitudes as they mock tragedy. Reading the spiteful attacks had me concerned about the path humanity was on, but then I remembered a stop I made in Ohio.

While traveling for work, I visited Kent State University.

I had passed it several times, and finally decided that, considering the significance it played in American history, I should pay my respects.

After locating the memorial, I did the walking tour, pausing at each plaque to read the name of the fallen student.

It was sobering.

It was to my surprise, then, when I watched a documentary on the massacre and discovered that at the time, support was behind the National Guard. Students were looked upon as dirty hippies, and good Americans believed in president Nixon and his war. In fact, following the shooting a Gallup Poll revealed that 58% of respondents blamed the students for what happened. Only 11% said responsibility lay with the National Guard.

In other words, had the internet existed, “They had it coming” would have made up the majority of any comments section. People believed that students exercising their First Amendment right to assemble and giving voice to their freedom of speech were at fault for being shot.

Reflecting on that, I started thinking about current tragedies in a new way, one that sent me down a historical path.

America was founded by a population who thought slaughtering indigenous people was acceptable. Following that, slavery was the societal norm, and once that ended segregation was hunky dory. In between slavery and desegregation, child labor, profound sexism and female belittlement were all widespread and popular. In fact, the outliers who challenged slavery, segregation, child labor, or sexism, those people were attacked for defying the system.

Using this lens of historical sins, witnessing a segment of modern society react inappropriately to a family losing their child suddenly makes sense. It’s not that humanity is doomed, or that people are becoming more selfish, we’ve always been that way.

The difference is in the Internet. The Internet gives everyone a voice, so now we are more aware of those without compassion. While I believe there are more loving voices out there than angry, self-righteous ones, the angry ones stay with us longer. It is more upsetting to read someone attack a family who just lost a child than it is to read tender words of support. The angry words make you angry, and anger is a reaction that takes time to recover from.

Fortunately, reactions and perspective have a way of changing with time and enlightenment.

Today, the Kent State Massacre is looked upon with reverence, not indifference.

As details came out regarding the Cincinnati Zoo, it was revealed the exhibit has an open-faced gorilla pen for a better viewing experience. Of course a four-year-old could make his way inside; it was a dangerous set up.

(Comedian Jake Vevera said on the Idiots on Parade podcast: “If you own a zoo, once a month you should have to actively try to get a four-year-old in with the animals. If you succeed, the zoo isn’t safe enough, and you have to shut it down.”)

Several days after the tragedy in Florida, a mother posted pictures of her son standing in the same spot that Lane was taken by the alligator. He was standing in less than 6″ of water, 30 minutes prior to Lane’s arrival. No one was swimming, and there were no signs warning, “HEY!!! DEADLY ALLIGATORS LIVE HERE!”

Even worse, several days after the heartbreak, stories popped up of visitors feeding alligators in that very lagoon, meaning Disney knew there was an alligator problem. Then a video surfaces of one next to Splash Mountain, meaning alligators were an ongoing, and ignored, issue. What happened to Lane was not due to negligent parenting.

In California, 1,000 protesters shouted “love conquers hate” at Pastor Roger Jimenez, showing his message is only finding a home among the most awful people, not the masses.

People may be quick to rush to judgment, but with more information, hopefully they come around.

Maybe next time they will offer condolences first, and wait for all the facts to come in before pointing fingers of accusation.

There will always be those who feel compassion toward others in times of tragedy, and those who feel self-righteous.

But it’s no worse than it’s ever been.

Why stop now? Read on...