Is empathy eroding?

Jean Twenge was recently interviewed on Fair Game with Faith Salie. Twenge is a professor at San Diego State University where she studies differences in generations. She has also written a book called Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before, which title is fairly self-explanatory, as far as these things go.

One of the things she was talking about was the rise in narcissism in the generation born since about 1980. In many ways this is how older generations talk about younger generations: they’re all out for themselves, they don’t care, they are lazy, etc. etc. etc. I was born in 1970, the heart of Generation X, and they certainly said all of those things about us in the 80s and 90s, and I wonder if we hear less about Generation X now mostly because there’s a new generation (often called the Millennials) to complain about.

Or is there something to this narcissism? She points out that the corollary to a rise in narcissism is a drop in empathy and that has been coming up recently for me in the world of liberation activism and theology.

One of the problems with people and groups who oppress others, either directly (say, hitting someone) or indirectly (say, not speaking up when a racist joke is said), is that they seem to lack a certain level of empathy. They may not even realize that they are missing it, as when students in my class make comments that they don’t even understand are hurtful because they’ve never really parsed the language.

So how do we teach empathy? How do we better get students to analyze their language and be better aware of how certain words affect others? I feel like this needs to get done in every class all the time, on top of what we’re already teaching, but certainly lots of teachers already feel like they have too much to do and don’t want to take on yet another thing….

[Also, I’m not sure my use of ‘directly’ and ‘indirectly’ oppressing others is a good distinction, but it seems useful in that usage.]

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