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I am a new parent. My interests are secularism, learning, parenting, religion, career planning, and adult education.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Why isn't empathy a universal human value?

I just read a sad story about a young man, Tyler Clementi, apparently gay, who killed himself after discovering that his roommate had wired their room and secretly taped and broadcast Tyler having an initmate encounter. I can't imagine that Tyler's roommate would have guessed how Tyler would take this invasion of privacy and public humiliation - I hope he regrets his actions.

I can only guess why Tyler's roommate would do such a thing - did he think it was funny? Perhaps he thought his college buddies would think it was funny, but did he even stop to think how Tyler would feel? My guess is no - or worse, that he knew Tyler would be upset, hurt, and embarassed - but maybe that reaction would just add to the fun. I really can't stand people who think that hurting or embarassing others is fun or funny.

When I was a kid, as young as 5 or 6, my mom would ask me - how would you feel if someone did that to you? I was asked this whenever I let my friends make fun of my sister or other kids. I was asked this when I trampled on the neighbors garden so I could pick their raspberries. I was asked this when I tried to lie to get away with what I wanted - and over time I developed empathy. It took awhile, but eventually, I came to a point where I could truly put myself in someone else's shoes and know what it would feel like to be humiliated, to be hurt, to be embarassed. Some of those lessons came when I, myself, was the brunt of jokes or public humiliation - or when no one would stand up for me. Then I really knew how it felt - and vowed to never, ever make someone else feel that way and I started standing up to bullies, calling people on insensitive comments, or distancing myself from people who were insensitive to other's feelings. I even started reaching out to people who seemed to be lonely and made some really, really cool friends that way. But I hope that people don't have to experience that kind of pain to develop empathy.

The thing about empathy is you really have to consider that someone might take teasing differently than you do. Some things aren't easy to shrug off - maybe they are for you - but not someone else. Sometimes we need to stand up to others who want to humiliate others and say, "I don't want to participate in that." I wonder if Tyler's roommate would have accomplished his "trick" if it weren't for another dorm student who let him use her computer to broadcast shy Tyler's evening with his boyfriend? If she had thought, "how would I feel if someone broadcast me making out with my boyfriend on the internet without my knowledge?" perhaps Tyler would still be alive today. We'll never know.

But for now, I wish that empathy could exist in the hearts of all humans for all humans.

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