Empathy and Socially Acceptable Cynicism

EmpathySlate has an advise columnist Emily Yoffe who writes a column Dear Prudence. As advice columns goes, it isn’t bad. And I have to admit, I get drawn into the articles more than I would like. Today’s was fairly typical, Help! My Father Is Dying of Lung Cancer From Smoking. Didn’t He Get What He Deserves? Actually, that wasn’t the headline; it was the link text for the article on another page, but it works better than the actual headline. Basically, the writer, who goes by “Slow Suicide Is Still Suicide,” wants to know how he can “feign polite concern” because he’s angry at his father for choosing cigarettes over his family all these years.

Prudence is very nice with “Slow.” My natural tendency is just to say, “Shut up you whiny asshole!” But Prudence goes step by step. The father is 77 now, which is older than most men when they die. Most people of his age smoked so maybe he should have a little sympathy. And regardless, after he’s dead, Slow is going to regret spending all these last moments seething. All of which doesn’t really answer the question, but is a polite way of saying, “Shut the fuck up!”

I have a more fundamental problem with Slow Suicide Is Still Suicide. And it starts with his moniker. Are we to conclude that people who commit suicide deserve no sympathy? Did they get what they deserved? Regardless, all of us humans do things that are not in our objective best interests. We don’t eat what we should. We don’t get enough exercise. We don’t pay enough attention when we drive. It is just our current culture that has decided that there are certain bad behaviors that others have a right to be total assholes about. In our society, there are two things: drugs and obesity. Those are two things that allow us to disregard our shared humanity and not care at all.

With drugs, as with just about everything, the issue is the dose. I really don’t like cigarettes. In fact, I think that smoking is a really vile way to get anything into your body. But the bad effects of cigarette smoking come from the excessive level of smoking. It is not at all clear that smoking a couple of cigarettes per day is a bad thing. Smoking 40 per day most clearly is. I’ll admit, our society tends to be all or nothing. But that’s all the more reason to be sympathetic to the chain smoker.

In the case of obesity, it turns out being reasonably “overweight” is more healthy than being “normal.” And that gets us back to Slow Suicide Is Still Suicide. There is little doubt that his father’s smoking did lead to his cancer. But that’s not why Slow feels so morally superior and correct in his callous reaction to his father’s illness. It’s all about cultural signaling. We divide people into those who deserve sympathy and those who do not. And those divisions are only vaguely related to the truth of the situation. In fact, in most cases it is far worse than that. Our whole idea of meritocracy is based on the idea that the rich deserve their wealth and the poor deserve their poverty.

What do we have other than empathy? Everything else is a mixed bag. Intelligence, for example, leads to cancer cures but also nuclear warheads. It isn’t as though I don’t understand where Slow is coming from. Friends and family can be aggravating. But Slow only thinks it is okay to sneer at his father’s pain because he thinks that society allows it. The man is dying. And Slow is being an asshole.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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