How the Internet is eroding our empathy and changing the course of politics

“It’s sad communication has evolved this way, we use so many words but have so little to relay.”

“It’s sad communication has evolved this way, we use so many words but have so little to relay.”

When we as human beings are asked to describe the most “ideal” personality traits, integrity, courage, kindness, and generosity usually top the list. A big part of our attraction to one person or another has to do with how we perceive they will treat and understand us. In other words, our impression of others is dependent upon how well we think they will empathize with us. Empathy was described by Teresa Wiseman as, “the ability to take the perspective of another person or recognize their perspective as their truth, staying out of judgment, recognizing emotion in other people, and then communicating that [we have recognized those things]. Empathy is feeling with people.”

In our modern societies, personal interactions with people remain mostly unchanged, but the invention of the Internet has forever changed general human behavior. Usual conversations include mannered, if not empathetic discussion before they descend into more violent types of disagreement. General virtuous interaction mandates both parties enter a conversation with good intent for debate, not ill intent bent on dispute. In general, people tend to avoid face-to-face confrontation because it is uncomfortable and most of us do not enjoy conflict. We mask our harshest thoughts in the interest of peace.

The Internet, however, has destroyed our once virtue of empathy and replaced it with intolerant candor. One need only look at the comment section of any Internet post to find hateful, crude, or judgmental remarks. Social media and the ability to instantly and anonymously share opinions have developed a culture of “sharing entitlement.” Not only do people behave as though our right to share our criticisms is a duty, if anyone confronts us for our cruelty, we decry that our right of “Freedom of Speech” is being challenged. And this issue is not limited to trolls or other individuals who say inflammatory things to incite reaction. We are so busy with our own importance and expression that we forget to ask ourselves if our commenting on a situation is appropriate or necessary. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.

The Internet has given us the opportunity to share news instantly and make the most private events available for public scrutiny. Recently, a dear friend of mine lost her two-year-old daughter in a tragic accident. Right after I found out what had happened, I was immediately reminded of two incidences of tragedy this year involving children and how the Internet destroyed any chance at private, respectful grieving for those families. The first occurred in Florida where a two-year-old boy was attacked by an alligator. The little boy’s father tried to save his son from the alligator’s grip, but was unable to. The second occurred in Idaho where a four-year-old was killed in a car accident because he had unbuckled himself.

In both of those cases, the humans of the Internet logged into their computers and hid behind their selfies and usernames to offer their cruel opinions and harsh criticisms of these mourning parents. At best, these grieving families endured shaming and blaming, and at worst they received personal attacks on their ability to parent and death threats.

It wasn’t until I heard of the death of my friend’s child that I truly understood how cruel and barbaric we have become. Seeing those terrible headlines was heartbreaking, but I had never played peek-a-boo with those children or tousled their hair. Now any comments made beside filtered profile pictures are aimed at people I love and respect, people that I hug and cry with. The Internet never affectionately stroked that little girl’s cheek or heard her adorable giggle. The Internet never saw my friend’s tender embrace for her child or that special love in her eyes. The Internet does not see the empty space nor feel dark shadow left behind. Conversations in our friendship are now forever changed and my friend is breaking in ways no one can ever understand. Everyday for the rest of her life will be filled with sorrow and regrets. And yet, the Internet has the arrogance and audacity to pour acid in these wounds with jagged comments and cruel opinions.

Where is the humanity in this?

In 1996, when a three-year-old fell into a gorilla habitat at a zoo near Chicago, people watched in horror and ultimately relief as the child was saved when one of the gorillas carried the boy to rescuers. People did not shame the mother for this accident, nor did they call for her children to be taken from her. What if that had happened today? Look at what happened in Cincinnati earlier this year. A four-year-old accidently fell into a gorilla’s enclosure and after the male gorilla dragged the child around for nearly ten minutes, zoo staff made the difficult decision to euthanize the gorilla in order to save the child. Within seconds, the Internet, having never met this family, offered their hatred and called for the mother to be jailed.

Jailed. For an accident.

Could any of these tragedies been prevented? Maybe. But the truth is, they did happen, and what parent on the face of the planet hasn’t experienced an accident? What person on the face of the planet hasn’t experienced an accident? By definition, an accident is something that happens beyond a person’s realm of control. When did we become so self-righteous and arrogant to hold our fellow humans to an impossible, perfection-demanding standard, and expect leniency and mercy for ourselves?

The Internet alone cannot be blamed completely for our cultural change, but the ability to instantly share our apathy and lack of mercy has made the phenomenon apparent and normalized. We have seen a cultural shift from revering empathy as a virtue to disposing it as a weakness or manipulation.

Being empathetic has become pathetic.

The rise of Donald J. Trump and other politicians like him is the direct result of our desertion of our most civilized principles. Who believed it possible that a man who proudly mocked a disabled reporter, crudely bragged about sexual assault, marginalized people based on race, nationality, or creed, and suggested breaking International Law to eliminate his enemies could possibly run for President of the United States, much less win. But here we are, staring in the face of an ugly reality and uncertain future.

Like most concerned Americans, I obsessed over the results, trying to understand how this happened. I was most troubled not by Trump himself, but the fact that he behaved so aggressively and boorish and yet was still selected by half the country as the most qualified and best candidate. His voters swear up and down that even though they don’t agree with everything he says, they support him because he “speaks the truth” or “shares their values.”

But Trump doesn’t speak the truth. In fact non-partisan fact checkers confirmed that he was the least correct of the candidates. Trump, however, does speak his truth, which happens to be hateful and fear mongering. More importantly, his speech reflects the internal beliefs of many Americans. To them, and distressing for the rest of us, it was more important to have a president that speaks their mind and claims to have conservative values, than have one who is careful with their word selection and contemplative with their remarks. While other politicians use language of inclusion and bridge building, attempting to sow seeds of unity and hope, Trump’s mantra of marginalization and wall constructing encourages division and blame. His blunt and outspoken opinions speak to people. The factual truth is irrelevant. Our country has been coerced into a cold, apathetic box without room for understanding or empathy, only fear.

The Muslim community has fallen victim to this fear as well. Instead of engaging in those difficult discussions and debates with our friends or coworkers, we walk away or ‘unfriend’ them with a satisfied click. We are afraid of judgment or harassment so we avoid those conversations. Instead of opening our ears to their point of view, we close them and wait until we are safely hidden behind a screen and keyboard to express ourselves to our carefully chosen Friend List.

I am reminded of a famous story from the time of the Prophet Muhammad (saws):

There was once a woman who used to throw garbage at the Holy Prophet (saws) as he passed her home. One day the woman grew ill and was bedridden; when the Prophet (saws) noticed her absence, he came to her home to enquire as to her health and offer any assistance to her that he could. His kindness and perfect manners were enough to change this woman’s life and she embraced Islam.

There are thousands of stories from the lives of our prophets, Imams, and scholars to glean inspiration from. Imam Ali famously wandered the streets at night in order to provide food to his hungry neighbors. Imam Hassan learned from his mother, Fatima Zahra to first pray for your neighbors, friends, family and humanity before you utter a word for yourself. Service and kindness to your fellow man is a cornerstone of our faith. Imam Ali said: “Verily, part of worship is to talk to people in a gentle manner and to spread the greeting of peace among them.”[1] The first step towards kindness and understanding is empathy, and the first step to empathy is reassessing our personal biases and being the first to offer our hand in friendship.

We have to understand that the average White person has a limited exposure to people of color, especially people of different faiths. Their Facebook algorithms keep our content off of their pages. Their leaders label us as “radicals” and “terrorists.” Their headlines describe us violent and extreme. On the other hand, their content is kept off of our Facebook feeds. Our leaders label them as “backward” or “uneducated.” Our headlines describe them as intolerant and hateful. This is an ugly two-way street and someone has to be the first to stop, turn around and look back and see the humanity in the other side. As Imam Ali (as) told Malik al-Ashtar, others are “either your brother in religion or one like you in creation.”[2]

There’s been a smear campaign against Islam since its inception. This hatred should be nothing new to us and we should approach it how we have been taught to do so. Once a traveller came upon the home of Imam Hassan in need of food and rest; the Imam invited him into his home and provided for his needs. The traveller passionately spoke about his hatred for Imam Ali and his sons, cursing them repeatedly. Imam Hassan did not reveal his identity and neither did he mention a word in protest. When the traveller was ready to continue his journey, he left and inquired as to the identity of his host. When he found out that the man who had fed, clothed, and sheltered him was one of the very men he sat cursing, he raced back to Imam Hassan and apologized. He told him that when he arrived he thought the Imam and his father were the worst of creation, but after witnessing his good manners firsthand he recognized them as the best of creation.

That individual was one of many during his time who was misinformed as to the realities of Islam, much like many people are today. If we cram the Internet full of backlashing hatred, we are only validating and justifying their disdain for us. We are angry and afraid, but we cannot allow these emotions to cloud our judgment and control our actions. We want peace and stability for all people but that cannot be attained by exclusion, dismissal, or marginalization of any point of view. When any people express a legitimate concern and others reject it as racism, hatred, or stupidity we are marginalizing them just as much as they are marginalizing us.

As a White American convert, I have a unique position between “Trump America” and “Muslim America.” I have lost count of how many rumors about Islam I have had to dispel from “concerned” family members. They are fed so many ridiculous lies from books, preachers, and the Internet I really can’t blame them for their point of view. Listening to them and patient re-education is the only solution to this issue, as frustrating and uncomfortable as it is. Ranting and raving in comment sections or belligerently tweeting up a storm are not going to do produce the results we need to change this world. And waiting for them to come to us isn’t going to work either. We have to be willing to put ourselves out there in a kind empathetic manner. When asked about true courage, Imam Hassan (as) said: “It is to know when to stand up to one’s opponents, and when to be patient in the face of criticism.”[3]

As we have seen this year, Trump has a frightening way of bringing out the worst in people. As of a year ago, Neo-Nazis, White Supremacists, and Militant Nationalists had to keep their destructive dogma hidden in basement meetings and unpopular Internet blogs. Now, we see them emboldened and proudly in our media and even in our soon-to-be government. There are definite reasons to be angry and protest, and being empathetic should not block our ability to be just, but at the same time we cannot place judgment and frustration above our ability to reach out and empathize.

We have to understand that everyday people are not like the politicians we see populating our media. Engaging in a nasty Twitter war with a middle-aged white man is not the same as protesting a fascist oligarch. Most Trump supporters are not running around shouting “Hail Trump” and screaming about white supremacy. This election forced us into the awful situation of upholding some of our values while having to compromise others. Will we respond to Trump and his extremists’ Islamophobia, racism, or policy mistakes by demanding the average Trump supporter condemn them, like we have been forced to denounce terrorism and ISIS even though we have nothing to do with them? I cannot answer that question, but the answer will be found in either empathy or justice.

Either way, it is a question the Ummah must answer.

Someone has to take the first step towards a culture of humility, empathy, and kindness. I propose that it is the Nation of Muhammad (saws). He was, after all, sent as a mercy to all of the worlds. I cannot accept that the Prophet (saws) would lower himself to the intolerant candor of today’s debates. We should hold ourselves to a higher standard. As Dawud Wharnsby once sang:

 “I sent an email to my loved one just the other day,
It’s sad communication has evolved this way.
We use so many words but have so little to relay,
As angels scribble down every letter that we say.
The viral attachments sent, the passionate insults we vent,
It’s easy to be arrogant behind user passwords we invent.
But on the day the scrolls are laid with every word and deed displayed,
When we read our account I know for one I’ll be afraid.
 That day I’ll be so afraid to read,
Every harsh word that I’ve spoken, every time that I have lied.
I’ll be obliged to admit, I’ll be obliged to submit,
Will I have strength owning up to each deed I’ve tried to hide?
 Oh Allah, I’m so afraid to read.”

[1] Ghurar al-Hikam, no. 3421

[2] Nahjul Balagha, Letter 53

[3] Tuhaf al-‘Uqoul, no. 226


by Rose Thompson