Robert Reich: Empathy And Activism – OpEd
By Robert Reich
- We have been through at least two years of social trauma (if you include all the Trump years, almost six). They include a pandemic that has taken the lives of over a million Americans. Wildfires, floods, and other climate disasters. Police brutality. Trump’s attempted coup and continued attacks on our democracy. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The Supreme Court’s pending reversal of reproductive rights. A mass killing of Black people in Buffalo followed by a mass killing of children in Texas.
Other than those directly affected, the pain has been felt most acutely by those of us who are most empathic with the suffering of others.
Empathy varies from person to person. I know someone who feels others’ pain so deeply and personally that she has difficulty getting through a day without sobbing. The past several years have been a continuous nightmare for her.
At the other extreme, I know someone so narcissistic that he’s unmoved by the pain of others. He often blames the victims, saying in effect they deserve what they got. Or he’ll talk about risks and odds, and attribute their plight to bad luck. Sometimes he even seems to express a kind of schadenfreude – as if their pain somehow reduces the chances he will be stricken, or their sorrow makes him feel better by comparison.
Most of us fall between these extremes. We read about or see photos or videos of the suffering of others — such as parents of the children murdered last week in Uvalde, Texas – and feel deep sadness for them. We might imagine what it would be like to be in their place, but we don’t feel their pain as if we were them. Nor do we distance ourselves so far from their pain that we are unmoved by it.
- Taking action to reduce the suffering of others depends both on one’s degree of empathy and one’s sense of efficacy. Should we contribute to a fund to help them? Call members of Congress to demand action on their behalf? Organize and mobilize others to join us in doing these? Perhaps even go to the scene of the suffering and help directly?
- Too much social trauma can overwhelm all these responses. My friend who feels other’s pain as if it were her own has become so flooded over the past two years that she is almost immobilized. She can’t sleep. She has stopped listening to the news.
Others I know say they’re experiencing a kind of numbness. They remain interested in what’s happening but have distanced themselves emotionally. They’re taking care of themselves and their loved ones as best they can, but tell themselves they have no power to affect what has befallen others, so why try?
Or they are now engaging in a kind of selective “that could be me or my loved ones” empathy. They get riled up about harms to others that they imagine might harm themselves and their families in the future (such as gun violence or climate disaster) but not about harms that seem unlikely to affect them directly, such as Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, or (if they’re white) police brutality.
- My wish for you in these trying times is that you not become immobilized or numb or selectively empathic — that you continue to respond to the suffering of others with concern and activism. In my experience, taking action – even a small effort to alleviate the suffering of others — is one of the most important means of remaining fully human at a time when the world’s pain can otherwise be overwhelming.
Robert B. Reich is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, and writes at robertreich.substack.com. Reich served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fifteen books, including the best sellers “Aftershock”, “The Work of Nations,” and”Beyond Outrage,” and, his most recent, “The Common Good,” which is available in bookstores now. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, “Inequality For All.” He’s co-creator of the Netflix original documentary “Saving Capitalism,” which is streaming now.