Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Empathy for the unempathetic

While reading Why the Rich and Powerful Have Less Empathy, I thought back to an old article I read the other day about Peyton Manning. It mentioned that he “doesn’t hang around riff-raff” and never did, even in childhood. He was (and is) drawn to “movers and shakers,” people who will “challenge” him.

I’m not singling out Manning, but he is a solid example of a prevalent strain of rich and powerful American — one who chooses to associate mainly with other rich and powerful people.

These people are right in the sense that you should choose your company wisely. No one needs to be around drags, killjoys, abusers, pessimists and/or enablers of bad habits. But there’s definitely some middle ground between the dregs and the Type-A, hyper-ambitious types. For example, people you like for their personality more than how much can they can help you grow your Q-rating.

It’s human nature to want to be around people like you, who reinforce you. The problem with getting too narrow with your tastes, however, is a mutated world view. As the richest and most powerful Americans increasingly isolate themselves from the rest of society, it becomes easier for them to dismiss all outside troubles. And as they encounter those troubles less and less, and surround themselves more with constant back-patting chatter, their empathy erodes as well.

The flip side of this is that everyone else increasingly sees the mega-rich as cartoon villains, only slightly discernible as human beings through the filter of socioeconomic distance. They are as much a derisive “them” to the masses as the masses are “them” to the 1 percent. Nobody wins.

I went through a phase when I associated mainly with people I agreed with. But after a while, we had little to say to each other. I came to appreciate differences in people. Those different perspectives are what help you learn and grow. Anyone who excessively limits their circle is not going to be well-rounded. And the longer that persists, the more being well-rounded seems like a bad idea to them. Put the people with those warped perceptions into power, and then we all suffer. They won’t care, because they ditched us “riff-raff” a long time ago. And we will get angry over it, and won't care what they have to say even when it's more reasonable.

In the nation’s best economic times, the financial gap between the top and bottom wasn’t nearly as massive as it is now. Neither was the social gap. And thus, what is often sneeringly dismissed as “class warfare” was less of a thing. We need to make that gap more of a natural one than it is today. Division is perhaps inevitable, but constant mutual resentment helps no one thrive.

If we had more common threads as a society, we’d be more understanding of that fact.

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