We’re experiencing an empathy crisis

I didn’t cast Monica Lewinsky as a real person until she was standing right in front of me.

Brianna Hatch

If you’re reading this and you’ve never made a mistake, you can stop now.

Now that we’ve established you’re human, that making mistakes is human, we can continue.

Imagine that mistake you just pictured, the first regret or wrongdoing snatched up from your memory where you’ve tried so hard to bury it. Now imagine that millions of people know about it — not only know about it, but can revisit it anytime they decide to Google it.

This is Monica Lewinsky’s reality. In 1998, when the Starr Report was released to the World Wide Web, her (now recognized) mistake — an extramarital affair with President Bill Clinton — became accessible and re-accessible to anyone who found a way to the Internet. The headlines, humiliation and cruelty that ensued were overwhelming, forcing Lewinsky into a decade of disappearance, as well as utter silence on the public front.

Monica Lewinsky’s story never resonated with me before I saw her speak on October 16. I had read about her in history textbooks, and had maybe heard a rap song mention her name, or a comedy sketch use her as a reference. But I did not comprehend the weight of her story until she laid it out for me and the others who attended her talk. I didn’t cast Monica Lewinsky as a real person until she was standing right in front of me.

Before I actively tried to put myself in her shoes, I felt no connection. Before I envisioned what it would feel like to have my private life and my mistakes unveiled on a global scale, I felt no real sympathy.

Monica Lewinsky’s story broke in the age of the Internet. Our lives are being lived out, displayed and sometimes ridiculed or exposed in the age of social media. Regardless of the platform, the effect is the same: we were then, and we are now, experiencing an empathy crisis in America.

When we read about people online, when we see posts about people on social media, we don’t really see them. We see entertainment. We have the option to criticize, degrade, comment and share whatever we would like, without seeing how it affects the subject of the video, photo or article. If we don’t truly see a person, or the effect our words and reactions have on them, then we don’t feel guilty about what we say — and we certainly don’t feel empathy.

This lack of empathy manifests in two dire consequences: bullying (specifically, cyberbullying) and a culture devoid of second chances.

You may have thought that cyberbullying is mainly an issue for high schoolers or even middle schoolers, but that’s a misconception. According to a survey run by Pew Research Center in 2014, young adults (those 18-24 years old, just like Monica Lewinsky was at the time) are more likely than any other age demographic to experience cyberbullying, making up 70 percent of the data set.

A digital reputation was hard enough to overcome and attempt to escape in 1998. But now, with the magnitude of social media only increasing, one post can define someone’s character forever. The likelihood of a second chance in terms of redeeming or redefining one’s public image is becoming more and more rare. Especially coupled with a lack of empathy, a lack of forgiveness and forgetfulness is inevitable.

It would be naive of me to say that there is an easy solution, or even any solution, to the large-scale empathy deficit that Monica Lewinsky felt in 1998 and that we are still feeling today. And it would be hypocritical of me, a college student, to preach solutions as if I don’t sometimes catch myself criticizing others without thinking of them as real people.

Yet after hearing Monica Lewinsky’s story straight from her mouth, I recognize that I need to do better. I’ve done many things I regret that no one knows about. And I certainly don’t want to add contributing to a culture deprived of empathy to that list.