Upon learning about the extent and harmfulness of inequality in our society, some people will say, “Yes it is sad.” I have often wondered about this expression. It is not the same as saying, “These facts about inequality make me feel sad,” or “I am saddened to see how people are hurt by inequality,” either of which makes it clear that the speaker or writer is claiming to have an emotional response. To say of inequality, “It is sad.” uses language of feeling but implies detachment. How do you interpret and explain the use of this expression? What do you suppose are the consequences if people look at inequality and injustice and feel sad (or merely say they do) rather than angry or outraged.
This is actually a topic that has been on my mind a good deal in the last few weeks. There has been so much injustice that it has literally made my heart and brain ache. From the verbal attacks on a young woman's character on nationally broadcast radio for simply asking for something all woman should have; to a child being gunned down in cold blood for being dark skinned in the wrong neighborhood; to an article about a woman kidnapped by the government in China and forced to have a 40 week abortion. Everyday I listen to politicians say that they want to help the poor but they then turn around and cut education, welfare, healthcare, public broadcasting funding, and federal funding to tuition programs. Everyday I hear them complaining about the high gas prices and yet they refuse to help fund alternative energy programs and instead want to further destroy what is left of our planet by drilling even though economists have proven that drilling all over America would only result in a drop in the world's oil resources. Worst of all is the ever widening gap between the very poor and the very rich and an ever disappearing middle class.
I think personally that the words, “It's sad.” is just a way to sound sympathetic, or perhaps it is actually sympathy but not empathy. I think the average person is incapable of feeling empathy, or at least has realized that if they do feel empathy, they would have to actually do something. Sympathy is an easy way out. You can show you are somewhat effected by the injustice around you without actually getting involved or doing anything. Empathy leads to actually doing something, it leads to truly caring. The average person can't afford to care about those that are not directly linked to their own lives.
The other day an article was posted in an online forum where mothers discuss topics close to them. The topic was the 40th week abortion forced on a young mother in China. The article included a picture of the deceased baby floating in a bucket on the floor, face down. You couldn't see much but to the average person this would be more than a little disturbing, to a group of young mothers, many of whom have lost children, it was beyond heartbreaking. The mothers all attacked the original poster with comments like, “that is unneeded”, "why would you post that" and "what is wrong with you" and "I don't want to know that or see that". After only about 10 minutes the post was removed. I was disturbed by the whole ordeal.. but less so by the posting of the article. The original article was awful but knowledge is power. Knowing things like this happen, is a way to begin to be able to change things.
Empathy not sympathy is the key to changing this world. The old saying, walk a mile in someone else shoes. If you can not inconvenience yourself long enough to even imagine what someone else is feeling then you will never change anything. These people who simply say “It's sad” and walk away are no better than the mothers who deleted that post, they are no better than the people who still listen to Rush Limbaugh, or who would rather see lower gas prices than natural forests and waterways in their country. To care is inconvenient and it is a slippery slope from sympathy to apathy, and I for one feel we are already too much of an apathetic world.