Jan 16, 2020 5 min read

#226: Against Empathy

#226: Against Empathy

Hi Loyal Readers! Part of why I publish this newsletter is to push our thinking, and today’s first two articles definitely pushed mine. If you’re sick and tired of managing other people’s emotions, this week’s lead article , on the dangers of empathy, will offer you a reprieve. If you want permissio

Hi Loyal Readers! Part of why I publish this newsletter is to push our thinking, and today’s first two articles definitely pushed mine. If you’re sick and tired of managing other people’s emotions, this week’s lead article, on the dangers of empathy, will offer you a reprieve. If you want permission to stop following the news, the second article is there for you. Don’t want your views challenged today? Start with the pet photo and proceed from there; the last two pieces are more typical Highlighter fare.

+ Just Mercy Giveaway! You’re great (you know this), but I’d also like to grow our reading community, and the best way to reach more thoughtful, dedicated readers is to ask you to spread the word. If that sounds good to you, and if also want a chance to win two tickets to Just Mercy (it’s great, see below), encourage a friend to subscribe (and type your name in the form). (No, you can’t sign up for them.) I’ll announce the lucky winner next Thursday!

Against Empathy

Against Empathy

We’re taught to value empathy — the ability to put ourselves into another person’s shoes, to experience the world as they do, to feel their pain. When we empathize with others, we’re more likely to help them and less likely to remain selfish. Altruism is good, right?

Not so much, argues Paul Bloom in this thought-provoking essay, in which he contends that empathy leads to exhaustion and burnout. Also, because our patriarchy considers empathy (more often) a feminine trait, the expectation of women to perform emotional labor leads to “pathological altruism” and higher rates of depression.

Instead of empathy, Prof. Bloom suggests we practice compassion, “a more distanced love, a kindness and concern for others.” When your friend comes to you in distress, they don’t want you to mirror their anguish. They don’t want you to hurt as much as they do. They want you to listen, to care about them, and demonstrate your desire to help. (21 min)

+ This essay was published in 2014. Do you think its point no longer applies?

+ English teachers: This is a great essay to teach for structure. Just saying.

Quit The News Cycle

Since serving on my high school newspaper, I’ve believed in the news, that “democracy dies in darkness,” and that journalism seeks the truth, holds power to account, and helps people understand the world. But news as a cultural institution, according to this astute essay by Greg Jackson, focuses primarily on “pseudo-events” (e.g., the President’s tweets), offering equal parts trauma and therapy, alarm and comfort, to keep its audience captive, ready to tune into tomorrow’s show, or check their phone notifications, instead of spending time with their kids. (31 min)

+ Sure, go ahead and quit your news addiction, but make sure you keep reading this newsletter.

Samwise, who belongs to loyal subscriber Tom, sure does know how to snooze. Want your pet to appear in The Highlighter? hltr.co/pets

The Fight Over School Funding: “Kids Who Have Less Need More”

No fundamental right to education is written into the Constitution, which means states can fund schools how they like — in most cases, inequitably. This article follows 12-year-old Taheem Fennell, a sixth grader in Delaware whose sister was killed to gun violence, whose mom doesn’t want him to go outside, whose school has no Math teacher or librarian, and whose legislators don’t want to change the school funding formula, which was enacted 70 years ago, in the era of Jim Crow. (23 min)

Just Mercy

You’re recommending a movie in The Highlighter? Yes, for the first time ever, I am. Longtime subscribers know my feelings about Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. He’s one of my heroes. Now he’s on the big screen, played by Michael B. Jordan. The film isn’t perfect, for sure, but it’ll inspire you to (re)connect with your purpose to fight injustice, and it’ll remind you of the power of sustained, relentless compassion. Pro tip: Bring gobs of Kleenex. (137 min)

+ Want to borrow Mr. Stevenson’s book? I have two extra copies. Let me know! Or maybe it should be required reading for all of us? 🤔

+ Reader Annotations: Tons of loyal readers have been sending in comments, which is great. Hit reply and join the fun.

Loyal reader Ella had a strong reaction to last week’s article on deep sea mining, “The Race To The Bottom Of The Ocean.”

Wow. I cried, I laughed, I looked up terms I’d never heard of. I’m smarter and more terrified than before I read the article. Thank you so much for the kaleidoscope of information!

Emotions were also strong for loyal reader Brittany, who seethed after reading Niles Niemuth’s critique of the 1619 Project:

I tried to compose a thoughtful response about why this article was so frustrating to read, but I think I’m distracted by my own anger. I guess a takeaway thought is that this is representative of why it’s difficult to have conversations across difference. Not any difference, but specifically the kind of difference where we can’t agree on the same facts. If a person can’t recognize that race is ultimately at the heart of all of our politics, because people of color are living with the effects of racism daily, how can we communicate?

Last week’s piece on culinary authenticity prompted loyal reader Daniel to feel nostalgic for a restaurant in San Francisco he loved:

There used to be this barbecue place on Grove and Divisadero: Brother-In-Law’s Bar-B-Que. I loved it. It was small and cozy and a great place to stop on my way home from my late night shift at the downtown library. It seemed “authentic” in that it appeared to be run by a single family. It seemed like an extension of home. And, yes, it was Black. At that time, most of the customers were Black, and the surrounding neighborhood had a much greater population of Black people than are there now. Brother-In-Law's Bar-B-Que went out of business. There is a slick, new barbecue place there now, with mobs and mobs and lines and lines of people — young, white, affluent — waiting patiently for their chance to enjoy the outdoor dining at long communal tables.

Thank you for those and all the reader annotations I received this past week. Please keep them coming! (Don’t like writing? Leave a quick voice message.)

And just like that, we’ve reached the end. Did you find at least one article that engaged your interest? I hope so. Please vote using the thumbs below. Also, let’s welcome our reading community’s two new subscribers: Manuschka and Armiya. (Manuschka, in particular, is extremely excited!) I hope that you find this newsletter a welcome addition to your Thursday email inbox.

If you like The Highlighter, please help it grow and get better. I appreciate your support. Here are a few ways you can help:

  • Enter the Just Mercy movie giveaway by urging a friend or family member to subscribe. (Don’t subscribe for them!)
  • Keep me caffeinated, as loyal reader Trevor did so generously last week, by buying me a coffee (thank you, Trevor!),
  • Become the 25th loyal reader to become a VIP member, which will bring you great joy (and HHH beverages) (and more joy).

On the other hand, if all this reading is not for you, please unsubscribe. See you next Thursday at 9:10 am!

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