Empathy is special. It is one of the mental and emotional faculties that make us uniquely human. It is a trait that no other species on this world fully and consciously understands. It is a tool we use to understand other humans, to feel their feelings, to understand their problems. It is beautiful. It is painful. And it is burdensome, all at once.
Empathy deeply connects us to another individual. It is not the same as experiencing joy, sadness, or anger. It tethers us to another person on a meaningful level – it transcends mere logical thought or logos, instead, to feel for someone is to completely understand them on an emotional level.
But empathy today is close to meaningless. We have trivialized empathy, replaced it with worthless likes and shares, recycled catchphrases like “this is so important”, or “stay strong, girl”, and relegated it to mere pixels on a screen. Of all the ills that social media has brought, the circlejerking, the cancerous memes, the toxic posts and cyber-bullying, the masquerade of empathy is the worst of them all: because it makes us look human, but we couldn’t be further from it.
This is what empathy might look like without social media:
And this is what empathy looks like today:
And this is the point in the post where either you agree with me, or you completely hate my guts right now.
There are three kinds of people on the internet. The first kind is the person that will be angry with this post. These are the people that are reflexively defensive when any opinion is at odds with their beliefs. These are the people that are guilty of the highest form of shitposting: empathy shitposting. These are the people that share articles like “10 things you can do about the crisis in Aleppo right now” without actually doing anything on that list. These are the people that frivolously write one liners like “wow, you’re so strong for doing this”, “I feel you” just to upkeep that appearance of caring.
And then there are the people who don’t show they care. They may come in the form of people who give absolutely no fucks about the issue at hand, or someone who genuinely cares, but at least it doesn’t come in the form of sloppy one liners and the constant stream of articles.
Take at look at this video of this guy who used 10000 plastic bottles and a mermaid to raise awareness about plastic usage. This is someone who actually cared enough to do something about something he was genuinely concerned about, and he’s not the only one. Watch the video, and he had many volunteers who helped him out, from meagre work of carrying and arranging bottles, to assembling a pulley system for his camera and makeup artists who made the mermaid look perfect.
Listen to what he says at the beginning: “the internet loves to see things that are extravagant, unique and different.” And sadly, seeing is all we do. The irony is that the video was shared countless times, but how many of the people who shared and commented actually did anything of worth about it? Commenter Javier Lopez-Rosende writes “You are a piece of history that will never be forgotten!”, but it is likely the moment he closed the video he forgot shit-all about plastic bottles and recycling. The only people who truly gained from this video are the actual volunteers.
And lastly, the third kind of person: me. Despite what I’ve already said about armchair activism and how it looks like I despise people like this, this post isn’t about them. This post is really about me, the third kind of internet user, who, upon seeing the slew of comments and worthless likes pile up on a video or an article, gets angry. No, I’m not angry with the people who do it – I’m angry with myself. Why?
Because while we have people who just mindlessly post articles and comment all day long on links with supposed value, there are actual people out there, making a difference in the world, not on Facebook clicking the “share now” button in their comfort of their beds. And I’m angry with myself even the empathy shitposts, makes me question myself: why do I care so little about the people around me? Am I just a selfish, inward looking human – have I lost the unique trait that makes us human – empathy?
I can bash the people who masquerade the “oh, I care so much about the environment/politics/social issues/movements” rhetoric, but am I any better? Here I sit, writing this post that will change absolutely nothing. Yet the line is incredibly difficult to draw: perhaps there is use in mindless sharing; how else will the world see that video on mermaids and plastic bottles? Maybe Malcolm Gladwell was right: social change isn’t going to come in the form of a 140-character tweet, neither is it going to happen on our Facebook walls.
So what exactly is wrong with armchair activism? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s the fact that nothing ever is achieved by sharing and liking articles. Or perhaps I dislike seeing people act more concerned than they actually are. Or maybe, it just reminds me of my own lack of sympathy for the people and problems around me.