America’s Difficult Conversations: The Apathy-Empathy Scale

 The Apathy-Empathy Scale:  A Conversation Starter

EdInquiry_Apathy_EmpathyFor our American community, It has been a tragic few weeks, in a tragic month, in a tragic series of years. We are facing a new day. One that I fear we are not prepared for and one where we cannot begin to predict the outcome. It is July 2016 – presidential election season. And this summer so far has been one where the country has come face-to-face with a stream of violent and volatile events.

The country has barely recovered from the largest mass shooting of more than 50 people in a bar frequented by the LGBT community in Orlando in June. We are now trying to understand how to take in three days of killings of Black men and the largest loss of life for police since 9/11. Five on-duty police officers were ambushed in Dallas by a racially motivated domestic terrorist. Global events have also created more uncertainty and fear in the US.  In France a lone man driving an ordinary and easily accessible rental truck plowed through crowds that had been  innocently watching fireworks, killing more than 80 and wounding hundreds in a matter of minutes.

Most recently, 7 police officers in Baton Rogue were ambushed by an ex US military Black man, fatally wounding 3. His motives appear to have been retribution for the killing of unarmed Black men broadcast weekly on TV screens juxtaposed to poor grieving families calling for justice for their lost loved ones. Most in these communities know justice will never come.

It has been overwhelming for many, myself included. Making sense of all of this violence is hard. Making sense of the varied reactions of individuals living in a nation long in denial is also hard. Making sense of the heated political rhetoric is hard. Trying to understand how to best contribute to a positive future for the nation is extremely hard now. So I have resorted to creating an analytic paradigm to help to process the events, channel emotions and dampen a worrisome but justified sense of outrage over where we are today as a country.

Alton Sterling – Killed by Police Thursday July 7, 2016 – Baton Rogue

First let me recap the last few days of my experience. On Wednesday, I was confronted with cable TV news displaying the shooting death of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge Louisiana. Mr. Sterling sells CDs outside of a convenience store with the owner’s permission. A homeless man had been frequently accosting him for money. During their last interaction, Mr. Sterling told him to go away or face consequences. Mr. Stering had an unlicensed gun. The homeless man called 911 and the resulting video of the police confrontation shows two White officers wrestling a large Black man into compliance by body slamming him and knocking him down. After he was pinned to the ground, the video continues, showing an officer pull a gun, point it at Mr. Sterling’s chest and the rest is unfortunate history. Death by cop in living color.

Philando Castile – Killed by Police Friday July 8, 2016 – Minneapolis

On Thursday, while working from home, I was following twitter and saw a spike in traffic around a Facebook post made by a Minnesota Black female car passenger Diamond Reynolds, driving with her boyfriend Philando Castile while her daughter of 5 was in the back seat. Ms. Reynolds live streamed a traffic stop gone horribly wrong where a police officer fired 4 bullets into her fiance. She streamed his last breaths, her treatment at the hands of the police and the discomforting cries of her 5-year old daughter witnessing the whole event. All live for the nation to see.

5 Police Officers – Killed by lone sniper Friday, July 8, 2016 – Dallas

Friday was a day when I had to pull myself together for a 1st time business prospect meeting after these two days of horrific news. When I was leaving home, I casually scanned CNN only to be confronted with yet another horrific scene of carnage and tragedy – this time in Dallas. Micah Xavier Johnson, a 25 year old Black war veteran went on a deadly rampage, ambushing the police that were protecting a peaceful march of primarily Black protesters expressing their outrage over the prior two days of killings. Mr. Johnson, was targeting police like a sniper on a hunt. Especially White police we were told by the news. In his crazy expression of rage, Johnson shot 12 officers, 5 fatally. And in the process incited a much needed but frequently avoided national conversation on race, police relations and gun violence

Trying to Cope and Understand

With all of this happening I could hardly get out of the door, but recognized that I had to try to shift my focus to an upcoming meeting with a potential client that would most likely not even know of these events. During the hour drive, my mind kept returning to the video with the face of Philando Castile slumped in agony, bleeding to death while a Facebook audience witnessed his last breath. Had it not been for the video we would never have known the truth. Had it not been for video, we would have most likely been lied to about these tragic events. Mr. Castile’s injustice would probably have been minimized through the lies of a system that protects itself by hiding truth from public view. His untimely death would have been inconsequential to many, except the grieving family and friends screaming, without audience, for justice.

How can we simply stand by knowing of this injustice for so long? How can we turn a blind eye to the injustice that so many experience daily?

In times of tragedy people have different ways to cope. I find that I fall back to a familiar and comforting analytic approach. It removes the emotion as I try to make sense of events. Trying to bring about shared understanding by applying the cold sterile logic of an analytic mind reduces the rage. Creating a “discussion framework” is one coping mechanism which helps to organize and more productively channel thoughts and emotions.

A new sense of outrage

I have spoken to several friends and colleagues about the three days of tragic events and have found that their perceptions, priorities and emotions vary significantly. The majority of Blacks I have spoken to are in a state of shock and outrage as they have watched the shooting of Black men for these past years in vivid color – played over and over on TV and on the web. These “angry” Blacks vary in profession as some are doctors, lawyers, corporate executives and teachers. Many that normally have lives far removed from these daily tragedies.

But these killings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and the heart wrenching prayers of Ms. Reynolds for the salvation of her boyfriend as he lay dying – together with the national feeling of grief for so many police officers shot in the line of duty – was too much to deal with in such a short period of time.

It is for this reason that I offer the following framework. Primarily so I can make sense out of what seems to be the growing division, hatred and violence that has infected the nation.


The Apathy – Empathy Scale

I believe a dangerous time is at hand in the US. One in which Americans must make a critical choice as was necessary after 9/11. The country must ask – Where are we going at this critical moment in time? What are we to become as a nation? Will we choose instinctual fear and tribalism. Or will we find communal comfort in recognizing our shared humanity, purpose and journey for justice? Will those that govern feel the real pain of the people governed – without the bias, political hype and convenient public display of concern that has been the norm in the past?

Where are you on the Apathy – Empathy Scale?


Unawareis having no knowledge of a situation or fact
Apathyis a lack of feeling, emotion, interest, and concern about a situation
Hypocrisyis the false appearance of interest, virtue or goodness, while concealing real character or inclinations
Sympathyis the perception, understanding, and reaction to the distress or need of another being
Empathyis the capacity to understand or feel what another being is experiencing from within the other being’s frame of reference
Outrageis a strong emotion characterized by reaction of shock, anger and indignation to a grave personal offense

Many are calling for a peaceful national conversation on the racial and economic injustices that have plagued the US for decades. But too many of those living with the daily pain of injustice do not recognize that much of their plight may be simply “unknown” to a great majority of Americans.  There are many Americans that do not recognize or fully acknowledge the daily injustice and indignities that are faced by far too many in our society.

The mismatch in experience, understanding and empathy will forestall meaningful conversation. We need a shared vocabulary to get us through these difficult conversations. All parties need to feel safe in sharing their perceptions. Conversations can be more productive if the parties have a common understanding of their starting perspectives and opinions.

Consider an Apathy-Empathy Scale that can be applied to facilitate the sharing of perspectives and ideas related to the difficult conversations the nation must face.

Apathy – Empathy Scale Applied to Opioid Crisis

For example, the Apathy-Empathy Scale can be applied to those households that are struggling with family members burdened with opioid addiction. Opioid addiction has been plaguing neighborhoods for decades. But when it was destroying poor Black neighborhoods, crime bills were introduced in Congress which fueled the war on drugs and the resulting mass incarceration of young Black and Brown people. At that time, for many communities outside of the inner city, this opioid plague was distant – the majority of suburbanites at that time were “unaware” or “apathetic” to these issues – so warehousing the afflicted addicted Black people in distant prisons was an acceptable solution. The problem solved.

Now with wide-spread availability of heroin and prescription drugs, suburban communities across the country are being devastated. The population impacted now includes the brothers, sisters and children of the mainstream middle class.  With this recent and rapid spread there is political will and action to recognize opioid addiction as a medical issue that warrants care and comfort rather than the past inhumane mass incarceration imposed on poor Blacks. What is the difference from then to now? In the past, the country was apathetic to the issues of addiction and the warehousing of the afflicted Blacks and Latinos. Today, given the growing crisis of addiction in mainstream communities, the society has developed a more compassionate response borne out of empathy to the afflicted.

This growing “empathy” created the will for understanding the medical needs of the afflicted and inspired congressional action resulting in one of the few bi-partisan bills passed in 2016. Empathy is what made the difference. With apathy there is indifference.


Applying the Apathy-Empathy Scale

The proposed Apathy-Empathy Scale can apply to many areas where the few are affected while the many are oblivious to their plight. Consider the applicability of this framework as it relates to issues such as:

  • Parents of  special needs children trying to find services
  • Parents seeking a quality education in inner city poor neighborhoods
  • Parents of children that have been unjustly locked away waiting for trial
  • Parents of children that want college but can’t afford it

And yes, this framework applies and can serve as a basis for a conversation about the near daily racial and economic injustices experienced by Blacks, Latinos and lower income Whites across the country.

Without a way to understand deeply held perspectives of the people that NEED to be involved in the conversation, we will find ourselves talking past each other, limiting progress and wasting a moment in time paid for by the lives of those innocents like Philando Castile.


New Conversation Vocabulary Needed

What happens when a person that is experiencing “outrage” tries to explain their plight to a person that is simply “unaware” of their concerns? Or trying to explain to a person that is “apathetic”? What happens when a person with true and sincere “empathy” encounters a person protesting in a state of “outrage” that blindly assumes all people that are different (race, gender or life circumstance) are “apathetic” to their plight? What happens when those skilled in “hypocrisy” spew out placebo like platitudes of false understanding and concern only to be followed by actions or inaction that support continuing oppression and indifference.

We must consider what our collective day-to-day life will be like if we allow our society to become one in which outrage is the norm – because those that are dis-affected, dis-engaged and dis-serviced – are never heard and conveniently ignored.


The Apathy-Empathy Scale and Race Relations

For the family of Philando Castile, killed at a traffic stop gone wrong, we can assume they feel the pain of that loss and the outrage that most would understand. But without the video, displaying Mr. Castile’s last breaths, most of us would have been unaware of the event. For others that have heard of the killing but not watched the gruesome video, they may be aware but apathetic to the pain of the Castile family. Some may assume that this happens all the time in these distant neighborhoods and the victim was probably doing something wrong. An assumption that many make about fallen Black young men.

There are others, vying for political favor within the Black community, that may describe the injustice in detail for political gain in a passing speech but soon thereafter move on to more politically profitable subject matters. This hypocrisy is too common and now well known.

Mothers within embattled communities may relate to the pain of Philando Castile’s family, offering their sympathy for such a tragic event. But the mothers of Tryvon Martin, or Tamir Rice – all victims of tragic police shootings, must truly understand and empathize with the pain of losing a child in such a public manner. Individuals living in communities where impassioned pleas for justice are continually ignored are prone to outrage taking matters into their own hands. We should hope their expression of outrage continues to be in peaceful protest.

At this time one of the greatest threats to national security is the lack of empathy for the day-to-day struggles of Americans of all races, faiths and beliefs.


Where are you on the Apathy – Empathy Scale?

 Sample Topics to use to test the framework:

  • Mass incarceration of black and brown youth
  • Double digit unemployment in communities of color
  • Sex trafficking of young children from across the globe
  • Police shooting of un-armed Black men
  • Inner city crime
  • Debilitating runaway student debt