Invisibilia: “The End of Empathy”

I’m circling back to catch up on a podcast from last week because Invisibilia‘s final episode of season 3 was so interesting I listened to it twice.

“The End of Empathy” approaches one story from two perspectives and makes an attempt to reconcile them. The story revolves around Jack Peterson, a man who got involved with the misogynist incel movement and then left it. The first take, by co-host Hanna Rosin, makes an effort to see things from Peterson’s perspective. The second, done by This American Life producer Lina Misitzis, doesn’t extend Peterson much empathy.

This causes Rosin to do some soul-searching and she exposes a gap in how generations approach empathy. Millennials, like Misitzis, possess 40 percent less empathy than those in Generation X, like Rosin, according to survey data. Like many things these days, millennials take a tribal approach to empathy. Those on “our team” deserve it, but why should women empathize with someone, like Peterson, who (at least at one point) belonged to a group that has perpetuated violence against women? Others, like terrorists, possess an extreme empathy for their own team, according to a researcher quoted in the episode.

It’s clear that Rosin does not view incels like Peterson as those on her team. The author of The End of Men has her feminist bona fides in order. But in her view, bridging the gaps that divide groups requires seeing things from the other group’s perspective (at some point the episode reminded me of Part 2 of Radiolab’s “In the No” series which had feminists of two generations discuss their divergent views on the #MeToo movement).

While I belong to the millennial generation, I tend to side with Rosin, though Misitzis makes some legitimate points. The acts Peterson committed should not be excused, but unless we understand what led him to commit those acts, what hope do we have of stopping others from traveling down that path? It’s clear that telling people they’re garbage with reprehensible views only leads them to dig in deeper.

Paired with increased tribalism, extreme empathy for your own team paired with an absence of empathy for others seems like a recipe for disaster. “Basically, you give up on civil society at that point,” the researcher said. In the end, both Rosin and Misitzis seem to move a little closer to the other’s viewpoint. Maybe podcasts will save us.

Listen here.

Invisibilia will return with new episodes in the fall.