Selective Empathy and How to Fight It

Updated: Mar 24

One of the most difficult challenges in fighting for the common good is addressing selective empathy. It is human nature to gravitate and care more for other human beings that look like you, worship like you, and think like you. A divine challenge comes in the form of caring for the individuals who are drastically different from you. However, I find that part of this issue is the inability to see past differences to find common humanity.


There are a several historical and current figures who have cracked the code to convincing other people to have empathy for other individuals with different backgrounds. Some of these individuals include Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Robert and John F. Kennedy. Joaquin Phoenix has recently used his platform to denounce injustice after receiving a number of rewards from his performance in The Joker (2019). Societies greatest heroes have the ability to discount personal bias to see all humans as deserving of love and equality. This empathy often transfers to animals and the environment.



Joaquin Phoenix accepting Oscar for Best Actor for The Joker (2019).


We follow and admire these people for their bravery and genuine desire to contribute to the greater good, yet we continue to live in a selfish paradox of self-righteousness and ignorance. We choose what to pay attention to. Our own biases prevent us from truly connecting with other people and Mother Earth. What does it take for us to leave the comfort of our own reality to fight for another person with a different reality?


Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." How can we revere King and not truly acknowledge and abide by one of his most famous quotes? His dream was not to choose justice for some and ignore the others. He expressed that we have a moral responsibility to seek and demand justice for all beings.


Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. giving famous speech in front of thousands.


Does supporting another group of people take away from our own personal investment to another noble cause?


What does it take to get people to wake up and pay attention, other than being personally affected by tragedy?


Here are a few things to consider while challenging our selective empathy:


We have to find commonality.

To do so, we must listen. True solutions to societal injustices require us to step outside of our comfort zone. We have to remove our shoes and walk in another's path. Pride and ego must be thrown out the window.

Can you imagine what it's like for a black mother to hear the news about her teenage son being shot by the police? His crime was walking in his neighborhood with a hoodie and a bag of skittles.


Trayvon Martin, murdered while walking home (2012).


How about the Inuit mother who regretting calling 911 after a SWAT team shot her son 23 times on Christmas day? His vice was taking a walk in the woods in Fairbanks, Alaska with a .22 revolver with a single bullet. His mother made the call because she believed he intended on harming himself.


Family of Cody Eyre remembering him after the one year anniversary of his death (2017). Image from Juneau Empire.


There are countless instances of injustices happening in our society that would send us to the darkest of places of our conscience if we experienced them ourselves. Muslims around the world are being persecuted simply because of the way they choose to connect to God. Children are being separated from their families at the U.S./ Mexican border. These facilities are inhumane and countless children have gone missing and are lost in the system. Women and children are being taken from Indigenous and Black communities at high rates because of societal neglect, and legislative loopholes that prevent tribal police forces from having jurisdiction over outside offenders. The latter is more of an issue on Native American reservations, but non-reservation Native communities exhibit similar rates of violence against Native women, children, and men.


Communities that live in poverty hardly ever get a second thought. Some missionary groups and non-profit organizations do their best to set up temporary solutions for generational issues. These efforts are honorable, but sometimes can be more damaging after organizations leave. The key to successful intervention is to empower and mobilize community leaders, so that beneficial structures don't fall apart when organizations leave.


We must avoid the savior complex.

It's very distasteful to walk into a community, despite all good intentions, and propose solutions to individuals with lived experiences. There are individuals within communities who understand the issues inside and out, and they usually already have the solutions to their own problems. It is patronizing and egocentric to authentically believe that an outsider can have feasible solutions to issues that have persisted in a community for generations, especially if the outsider shares the identity of the community's perpetrators.


Sometimes the only issues are lack of visibility and resources. In other words, you can usually contribute by listening and providing community programs and leaders with financial support.




Subscribe to different news outlets and social media accounts.

There are a number of individuals running websites and social media pages to bring attention to the issues no one pays attention to, especially regarding the rights and land claims of Indigenous people. We don't give these problems a second thought because they are out of sight, and therefore out of mind. News coverage is limited, because some of these news stories do not appeal to what the majority of the population wants to see, ever since our favorite news channels, liberal and conservative, have subscribed to higher ratings over truth and diversity. In some communities there are physical or socioeconomic barriers that prevent information from getting to larger news outlets. We must do better to show solidarity and demand justice for each other.


We must not be afraid to raise our voices for others.

Standing up for justice is not easy. You may find yourself in a setting, where you are the only one who stands up in the ugly face of inequality. Don't budge. Welcome to the fight. Feel what people on the front lines of a cause have felt all their lives. Acknowledge the burden of people who cannot remove themselves from their identity. Of course, your experience is light exposure to what some have carried for years or even generations.


There will be some who are resistant to change.

When we begin to emerge from our comfort zone and speak up, it feels isolating at first. We may lose friends and end relationships, because we no longer have the same moral standards. It's important to keep in mind that there are people like you who are also evolving and increasing their capacity to demand justice for others. We have no control over another person's growth, we can only control our own.


Be mindful of "woke" culture.

Anyone who considers themselves as "the most woke" might still have some work to do. None of us are all knowing in the work. There is always more to learn, and there is always someone who knows more. Listen and be respectful of elders, but also be aware that some of their own traumas prevent them from seeing change as well. Excessive "woke" culture tends to be laced with ego, and resists one of the most important qualities of empathy, which is the ability to listen.



How much of our own comfort are we willing to sacrifice for true equality? Will we vote in the best interest of society's most disadvantaged? Are we willing to give up habits that damage the lives of other human beings? Do we have the capacity to challenge industries that treat other species inhumanely by refusing to buy their products? What will we do to demand change for the greater good of all humanity, not just our own good? Can we use our shining moment to be a voice for the voiceless?


As an Indigenous woman, I wonder if our causes make everyone uncomfortable because so often are we diminished, ignored, and forgotten. We fight for each other and the environment. We reject pipelines and wasteful border walls going through our sacred burial sites. We lobby and write letters to Washington, D.C., only to continue to be ignored and even mocked with red-faced mascots. We are perpetually disrespected and discounted in discussions of equality. Perhaps because it's easier for society not to acknowledge us. People enjoy the historical Native that rode horses, beat the drum, and smoked a peace pipe. Our historical erasure is America's luxury. For no one wants to think about the genocide of millions, and the systems of oppression that still plague our communities today. Despite all the hard work we do to educate and create space, we are constantly met with ignorance.


We will continue to fight for land, water, and justice for our communities. The challenge has been to make society see that when we fight for the land and the water, we fight for the land you stand on and water you drink too.


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