The post below, and the series of posts that follows, is researched, drafted, written up and finalized by one of our current MSc students, Boushra Dalile, with only very minimal editorial feedback. It is with great pleasure that we are here able to offer her a platform for discussing these important and timely issues; empathy, emotions and the ongoing European refugee crisis – all from a scholarly vantage point.
– Oskar MacGregor
Just after losing his trading job in Chicago in 2010, Brandon Stanton set out to interview random strangers on the streets of New York city and post their photographs with snippets of conversation on social media. It was difficult to predict, from such humble beginnings, that his blog, Humans of New York (HONY), would accumulate more than 16.4 million followers on Facebook over the course of five years. Soon enough, the portraits and stories were no longer confined to the streets of New York, but covered more than 20 countries around the world. Most recently, in response to the European refugee crisis, Stanton has set out to capture the unique and singular tragedies of refugees making their way to Europe. The result? An outpouring of the utmost supportive and empathic responses, conveying deep concern for the plight these people are going through, beside thousands of shares, hundreds of thousands of likes, and occasional offerings of help, on a daily basis.
Empathy, as commonly conceptualised, is adopting another’s perspective and resonating with their emotional experience. Despite the distinction one makes between oneself and another, an empathic response involves suffering at another’s suffering, or rejoicing at their joy. Empathy has its peculiarities, however. For example, it’s well known that we typically empathise with those most familiar to us. In cases of strangers, empathy tends to be a dyadic response we express when we’re shown a name and a face of a person suffering, as opposed to a statistic representing hundreds of people we will never know. Furthermore, psychologists have recognised that empathic responses to another’s pain over time can lead to emotional exhaustion, or what Matthieu Ricard calls empathy fatigue. One might pause and wonder about how such findings relate to the refugee series on the HONY blog. For one, Stanton, through portraits and stories, successfully shows the real lives behind the statistics of the refugee crisis, which is conducive to empathic responses from the readers. However, why is it that we voluntarily and continuously subject ourselves to heartbreaking stories and manage to empathise with the suffering of others online? How is it that readers avoid empathy fatigue? Is there something to the HONY blog that elicits sustained empathic engagement from the viewers, which manifests itself in comments, likes, and shares, and which other news websites don’t have?
Perhaps yes. A quick glance at any news website or social media demonstrates how such sources bombard us with information on a daily basis. While generally accurate, this information is often impersonal, muddied by political views, and is far removed from the kind of information that we desperately crave. For obvious reasons, it is impractical for media outlets to attend to each individual story the way HONY does, which detracts from our capacity to be empathic, gradually numbing us to the horrifying realities many people go through. Readers of the HONY blog appreciate that the blog delivers first-person, unfiltered information, as one reader commented,
HONY, before you started this series, all I knew about refugees was that the major media channels always told. Following the past stories on this page has given a total new dimension of what I knew. I have realised how quickly we all judge and form our opinions of people we don’t even know.
Readers also acknowledge and are concerned with others’ suffering, are willing to help, and are grateful for gaining an “inside” perspective into the lives of fellow human beings. The attraction the HONY blog enjoys stems from the fact that it does not merely tell its readers what they already know, “thousands of people are suffering in [insert country]” but rather it presents them with the kind of information that advances the state of knowledge on certain issues concerning fellow human beings, beyond mere obvious facts.
I believe that, to the followers of the page, HONY represents a sound with a loud and clear message in a sea of mere noise. I also suspect that the effectiveness of the HONY blog—evident in its ever-growing platform and the humanitarian projects that spring from it—rests upon subtle dynamics that continuously engage the readers’ psyche. For this reason, I will try to uncover some of these dynamics over the following blog posts, with a special focus on the factors that motivate readers to invest time and emotion in following the refugee series. My general aim is to use the HONY blog as a model to demonstrate that continuous engagement in empathic responses on the internet towards people who are suffering is not easy to come by but rather it is modulated by a multitude of factors that are highly independent of the function empathy is thought to serve and are conceptually distinct from what instigates empathic responses. In my opinion, it is only through a greater understanding of these dynamics, whose presence or absence unconsciously modulates empathic responses, that we can become better empathisers.