June 2, 2013

What Fox News Can Teach Us About Empathy.

We are all in this together and as long as one of us is suffering, all of us are suffering.

Last week Fox Business host John Stossel took his camera to the streets of New York City to ask people what programs they would cut to reduce the national deficit.

On Fox & Friends, Stossel reported that most of the people who were asked weren’t sure what to cut, and offered his solution—cutting “whole departments,” like the commerce department, because commerce “just happens,” and the education department, because most of the work is done at the local level.

Then Stossel stated that these and other programs should be cut because “no one” died of starvation in the Great Depression, which was before the modern “welfare state.”

After, some bloggers took it upon themselves to disprove Stossel’s false assertion.

Stossel later issued an apology/correction via Twitter, saying that he “was almost certainly wrong,” and that it was a “dumb statement.”

But his apology didn’t negate his original point—that the welfare state is creating more people who are dependent upon it, and that as long as we continue to help, people will continue to take without trying to better their situation.

This might be true of some people—we will always find those who take advantage of the system. But it’s not true for all—many are simply trying to raise their families on minimum wage or no wage.

But who decides who needs help and who doesn’t? Don’t we have an obligation to help those in need, regardless of whether or not they “deserve” it?

A few weeks ago, the company where I work did its annual drive for a local charity. One of the money-raising events is a chili cook-off. During a meeting one of my coworkers asked if everyone had seen the man who holds the “Homeless, anything helps” sign on a nearby corner. My coworker had invited the man to eat some chili and wanted to know if everyone was okay with it.

I’ve seen the man many times. He is always standing at the intersection with his dog, no matter the weather. As an animal advocate, this has always pissed me off. I’ve worried about the dog whose life consists of standing in traffic in the heat or in the snow.

In Colorado, there are many corners where people ask for money. So it never occurred to me that this guy might be actually be homeless. And I said so, asking my coworker if he really was homeless.

Another coworker responded with “Yes, his name is Brian, he lives under the bridge and he’s vegan.” The second coworker went on to tell me that she speaks with Brian often while she’s waiting at the stoplight, and that whenever there are leftovers in our kitchen (which is often) she brings them to him.


Oh. Yeah. I’m an asshole.

I was simultaneously hit with compassion, shame and a big awakening to how blind and judgmental I’ve been. I immediately wished I were more like my coworkers. They didn’t ever question whether Brian was homeless. They just saw someone who was asking for help, knew that they could help and did so.

That’s when I realized it didn’t matter if Brian is actually homeless, why he is homeless or what he’s doing to not be homeless anymore. It doesn’t matter if he is telling the truth or if I believe him. The point is that he is saying he needs help and it’s within my power to give it.

If there is suffering, and we can do something to help, then shouldn’t we? Does it matter who deserves what or who is taking and giving?

The thing that struck me about Stossel’s Great Depression comment is not whether it was true or not, but how we seem to have lost our sense of empathy—the thing that allows us to step in the shoes of someone else before we make judgements.

These days, we don’t really care about things unless they affect us directly. But we shouldn’t need direct experience to imagine what it’s like to be in another’s situation. We are all the same and feel the same things.

I know there is a fine line between personal responsibility and empathy. I don’t think our salaries should go to help support those who can’t stop using drugs, or those who just don’t like to work. But I think we do disservice when we automatically conclude that everyone who is taking help is taking advantage.

It shouldn’t have been a stretch for me to believe that someone could be out of work and be left to beg on a corner—especially these days. And it shouldn’t be a stretch for Stossel to think there are people who can’t make ends meet no matter how hard they work.

It’s not up to any of us to determine who deserves help or who earned what. We are all in this together and as long as one of us is suffering, all of us are suffering.

Part of living in a community is helping when people need it, and leaving the question of who deserves what out of it.

It’s assuming the best before assuming the worst.

Sometimes we are ahead and sometimes we are behind. What if we all live in such a way that when we’re ahead we give a little extra to those who are behind?

Because we never know—there may come a time when we are the ones who are behind, who need help. We may need to “take.” And when that time comes, we’ll hope there’s someone there to give.




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Ed: Brianna Bemel

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