Where’s the Empathy?

Hipsterism is, in one light, a subset of popular culture defined by Polaroid cameras, cold brew coffee from local cafes, skinny jeans, and beards. In another light, though, hipsterism is a dangerous influence on young adults in their navigation of how to be empathic. It breeds distance and polarization, and is problematic in its creation of echo chambers in our society.
Dr. Joseph Lee, Youth Continuum Medical Director at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, came to speak at my school. He has dedicated his career to helping teenagers understand and recover from substance abuse. Lee has also studied the link between hipsterism and empathy.
Lee, in his presentation, spoke about this connection and why it’s important that teens are aware of how dangerous hipsterism can be. “The spirit of hipsterism is not really knowing or understanding something fully, but knowing enough on the surface to pass like you have expertise in it,” he explained.
This is dangerous because when people feel they are right and justified in their beliefs, they lose sight of empathy in the race to be right. “Information gives people a false confidence that they really know something deeply or more intimately than they really do. And, then, as a result, they start to lose empathy for other people with ‘wrong’ perspectives,” he said.
In this information age, people, especially young people, are more informed than ever. Being informed is good, but it creates a tension between being right and being empathetic.
Hipsterism and social media have created distance in our generation. Even though we might fight for justice and what is right, we fail to become close and fight as a group, rather than singularly from screens. “[Teenagers] have experienced this [distance] in social media where there’s a lot of information but somehow instead of bringing people closer together, there’s a lot of miscommunication and jumps to conclusions,” Lee told me.
It is our job, then, to invite conversations in real life and discuss our differences rather than share articles and posts from others in a passive way. We must work to create a world where discussion is able to happen.
In recent events, this distance and lack of empathy has become incredibly clear. After the presidential election, many people felt blindsided by the result and flocked to social media to express their feelings. Both groups, whether confused and upset or content and excited, judged the other side. In pointing fingers, we avoided having constructive conversations and extending empathy.
Lee said, “We may be very right about our perspective, but we still have to try to walk in other people’s shoes to connect. It’s about how we go about being right rather than if are we right.”
It’s becoming more and more important with the growing popularity of social media that we take a step back, empathize, and have productive conversations about different perspectives.
Social media already tailors what we see to what we like, creating homogeneous groups and echo chambers. We lose empathy, then, for anyone outside of those groups, as it is nearly impossible for us to fathom their perspective. This is incredibly dangerous because we are putting on blinders for other perspectives and avoiding confronting the fact that inevitably there will be people who disagree with us. If we remain in the echo chambers that we have built and fail to reach outside of our groups, we begin to take on a mob mentality and avoid constructive debate and challenges to our ideas.
Lee is hopeful, though, for a future where we have real, honest conversations and close the gap between polarized sides. It will take empathy, grace, and humility to bridge this gap, though, which I know we are capable of. I challenge each of you to exhibit these traits in your interactions with people who don’t share your opinions, as it is becoming more and more necessary that these conversations happen in order to create a society in which fighting is not the norm.
Enjoy your cold press, grow a beard, but, please, be empathetic.

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