On Roasting and Empathy

For those of us who are parents, coaches or teachers of teens, we cannot help but be struck by what has become an unparalleled capacity for cruelty that this generation of teens seems to have tapped into.  To be clear from the outset, this is not an essay about bullying, although it is related to this capacity in its truest form.  Our focus on bullying has become merely another way in which we help to create more victims so much so that we have come to label even the smallest amount of confrontation as “bullying.”  This is about a much deeper issue and that is the depths of cruelty that seem to be part and parcel of the life of teens.  Witness the latest teen pastime, Roasting.

Roasting is different from making fun of someone.  A certain amount of that is healthy, and especially in young men it is a sign of affection.  That is mere ribbing.  Even when it is not entirely good-natured, it usually stops when someone gets salty or sensitive.  Roasting on the other hand is something much more than ribbing.  Roasting is, as the Urban Dictionary describes it, the “act of verbally assaulting someone until you hurt their feelings, sometimes to the point of making them cry.”  Victory doesn’t occur with the zinger or burning the other person, it is in roasting them, that is, submitting them to slow and painful abuse.  Its purpose is not simply to embarrass but to keep going until you actually hurt the person or you drive the person to hurt himself.    Roasting is, in essence a Luciferian monologue intended to push a person over the edge.

This phenomena of Roasting leaves Parents, Teachers and Coaches at a loss, especially because even those who we would label as “good kids” engage in it.  It will remain an enigma until we are willing to name it for what it is and confront its chief cause.  Children and teens of this generation have failed almost universally to develop empathy.

When I make fun of someone else, my ultimate reason is because it brings me some pleasure.  That pleasure is reduced to the degree that I realize that it came at the price of causing another person pain.  In short, empathy either stops me from doing it, or at least from taking it so far.  Empathy is a sub-virtue of the virtue of charity by which a person habitually enters into another’s feelings, needs and thoughts. It is the habit of seeing things through the eyes of another person.  Empathy, first and foremost, assumes that one has learned how to “read” another person.  Until that ability matures, the person can only know their own pleasure.

How do we learn to “read” another person?  In normally developing children it is through face to face contact with other people.  They watch the reactions of other people to events and begin to read what they are thinking and feeling through those reactions. They learn that not all communication is verbal and learn how to pick up on these non-verbal cues.  They learn what approval looks like and what disapproval looks like.  They even learn that a person who is crying may be overcome by joy and not sadness.

The seeds of empathy are planted where there is presence.  Remove the presence and the tree of empathy never grows.  It is presence that is in danger in our digital age.  Children spend an inordinate amount of their time looking at screens instead of real live faces.  Even if their parents are “present” their faces are mostly looking down at their screens.  Communication occurs, not through conversation, but through texting and instant messenger.  Emoji are a cheap counterfeit to the real life need for a smile or a frown (did you know there is even a roasting emoji?). Growing up digital may have many advantages, but until we are aware of the pitfalls, we put our humanity in danger.  The digital threat to empathy is perhaps one of the greatest dangers we face.  Empathy is one of the most important social virtues and a loss of empathy leads not just to Roasting but things that are much worse.  We are raising our children to be cold and will only continue to exacerbate the problem as long as we remain addicted to our screens.

This mass deficiency of empathy in the young is a major theme of a book that every parent should read called Reclaiming Conversation.  The author, Clinical Psychologist Sherry Turkle, discusses some of the unintended consequences of going so digital, so fast.  As the name suggests, one of those consequences is a loss in conversation. What makes her book particularly good is the healthy dose of realism.  For most of us, ditching digital is not an option.  But rather than give ourselves over to it completely, we need to be aware of the places where we are particularly vulnerable and do things to protect ourselves.  In practice this means finding ways to unplug for longer periods of time with the express intention of having healthy conversation.  She uses Thoreau as her conversational model; the same Thoreau retreated to Walden and set up three chairs in his house—“one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”  It starts with unplugging long enough to have healthy conversation with God (solitude), with those who are important to (friendship) and then to those outside our inner circle.  Although inefficient, face to face conversation is something that makes us human and is good for us.

It isn’t just Roasting in the young that is a problem.  There are many signs that adults too are losing the ability to empathize.  We say many things over email and text that we would never say in person because we have failed to realize that there is a person on the receiving end.  Rather than using text and emails as a tool to facilitate conversation we have come to use it as a replacement.  It may be easier to “deal” with someone who, but Jesus never said we should “deal with your neighbor” but to “love your neighbor.”  Love requires face to face interaction.  Practically speaking we should never argue or apologize over text or email.  Instead we should make it a policy to have conversations, especially hard ones, face to face.  Our humanity might depend on these simple practices.  We need to put down our phones so that we can take up our conversations.

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