An Apathetic Turn of Empathy

A characterising feature of modern times, or if I may call it – “postmodern times” is the slow turning of existing empathetic attitudes of people towards a distanced indifference. As we grow with competing economies and engage in cutting edge technologies, our shared morality is showing a gradual slip off. What can be the reason for this growing apathy at a societal and individual level? Is it the transforming face of society which is less social and less shared than before? Or is it the heightened difficulty of living at such an uncertain time, where opportunities at having a ‘good life’ have dwindled? In other words, is the anxious and stressful environment causing people to become insensitive or apathetic towards other people? Is a healthy mental framework important to build attitudes like empathy or is it just based on one’s moral upbringing? Let us try and look for answers to these questions.
If we take the first assumption that deteriorating mental health or stress-afflicted living is the reason for existing apathetic attitudes of people, we in turn mean that healthy mental state connects with empathy. Persons with a healthy approach towards life tend to look at others in a kinder way. This may be true, but not entirely. Suppose a person has a healthy composure and a positive outlook towards life, would that necessitate his altruistic tendencies too? What if the person concerned is just selfish in his approach and justifies such an attitude as a survival strategy in present mischievous times? If such a person is self-centred and maintains a healthy deportment, our theory is proven wrong. So, healthy mental states do not automatically make one empathetic or altruistic. That would confirm the other alternative, that society has grown out of moral frameworks and have landed in this existing ‘flexible’ morality that is based on demands of market or feasibility of its users. This new morality has no commitments to the social values of previous times. Instead, it is relegating the level of values and ethics in general.

Firstly, let us look at this turn towards an individualistic style of living, where each unit that forms the whole becomes more important than the whole itself. We have habituated ourselves in the present setup of fragmented living. It starts with a big family getting divided into smaller families which further end up in two people living together or in some cases they get separated too. Divorce rates are highest in developed nations like USA which has been the flag bearer of individualistic form of living. Whether divorces are liberating, or problematic can still be a subject of debate. Nevertheless, this makes one thing certain, it displays the growing inabilities of people to live together and mend their differences. Tolerating the other seems painstakingly difficult and this attitude keeps on growing at societal front. And it often results in the ‘Othering’ of people. Othering is a form of dehumanising directed at an individual or a group of individuals deemed to be not ‘fitting’ within prescribed social norms or format. It is negating the other of dignity and respect. The quintessential example is that of racism, where discrimination and apathy is generated against people of a specific skin colour. Some would argue that racism was prevalent in previous societies too which were more community centred and less individual centred. It is true that social evils such as this have prevailed, however the present modern systems have presented such ills in society as ‘unrecognizable’ frameworks. Previously, there were orthodox cultures perpetuating violence against people of colour, and now the violence against them is ‘systemic’. Individualism has made the idea of freedom and choice available for a few, while others continue to fight for dignity, and the façade with which individualism operates as a free and equal system is not revealed to many.

Second key concept to be understood here is the economic turn facilitating the apathetic attitudes. Modern commerce gave chance to everyone in the market through competition. This competition resulted in success for some and failure for some. If the successful person already belongs to a high caste in Indian society, the high status gets reconfirmed; but if the successful person belongs to a low caste, somehow the success is regarded as illegitimate and undeserving. And so, the empathy turns into apathy. The hierarchical social culture of India and the free-market economy do not mix well. Similarly, the political setting keeps on making and breaking our moral frameworks. So, morality gets reshaped again and again, in view of who is portrayed as unfortunate and deserving sympathy according to the state. Morality suddenly turns to help the tribals of the country through campaigns, whereas despises those tribal students who are accessing education through government grants. There is ample amount of empathy for farmers of the nation and abject apathy or abhorrence for those who have taken to our urban streets for their rights. Morality in present times, has become a matter of convenience and agenda.

Talking of households, if there are any left in the true traditional Indian sense; the foundational wall of morals and values has been trembling. And this in affect is shaping the progression of families. Our dadi (paternal grandmother) and nani (maternal grandmother) are not usually present to impart us the meaning of morals and traditional values as in the past. Modern parents are so busy working for a financially secure future which leads to a dearth of interaction and communication for a growing child in the family setup, and so that child looks at the outside world for inspiration. With weakening of families, there is a weakening of society. So, we fall upon the modern system, not just for its economic benefits, but also for its handful of ideals and values. The idea of an individual and his ‘responsibility’ to shape a future on its own. They cannot blame fate or misfortune for their failings. They are placed in a race for survival, where if your ideals are not self-centric, you will be left behind.

Hence, there is no one in this world who would not want others to empathise with them; but they terribly fail at empathising with the world. Empathy has been turned down as a weak concept in a modern setting, it will pull you behind in the race. Apathy comes easy to people, it does not stop us from winning the race, even if at the expense of others. Morality in present times has made itself appropriate to the needs of this rat race. However, we must pause and think, better yet introspect. What are we doing all of this for? If for ourselves, are we truly happy? And if for others, are they benefitting? These modern aspirations of a certain living are not provided to us by any divine convention. The race and competition are a creation of human society itself. And so, we can ‘will’ to change it. The road of apathy takes us towards our very destruction, it shows mercy on no one. The road of empathy is paved with hopes of a future in togetherness. The pandemic worked as an active realisation of all things we must treasure – family, friends, and time itself. It taught us how much people matter and how the social bond is slipping away from our hands. It is imperative to take our lessons now and not dwell on the past mistakes. Survival is not just of the individual; it is also of a social being. With the uncertainty of today and tomorrow, we must mend our social ways of living and social behaviour. After all, we would want our children to grow and flourish in a world which is full of empathy and not apathy. As Buddha rightly said, ‘In separateness lies the world’s great misery, in compassion lies the world’s true strength’.

– Tanya Yadav (Freelancer)

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