A question came to mind while watching a recent episode of Celebrity Apprentice, but before I explore it, I should make it clear that I don’t like Donald Trump as a person. I don’t know enough about him to make me hate him, but I’m definitely not behind anyone who aims to distract citizens with ridiculous misinformation masquerading as serious inquiry. He’s obviously not a stupid man, yet he attempted to cloud a crystal clear fact about President Obama, instead of using his far-reaching voice to illuminate any number of very real injustices in our world that could benefit from public scrutiny. If one can get past the Donald aspect of it, I do think that Celebrity Apprentice is entertaining at times but mostly helpful to job seekers at any level. It’s valuable to understand what employers want from us, and how to go about thinking that way when necessary, especially in Apprentice’s forum of selling things to the consumer, since the jobs that utilize these skills are the ones in increasing supply. (The hippie in me hates that last sentence, but it’s hard to pay the rent, or the water bill and the property taxes, or eat, without a job.)
I prefer Celebrity Apprentice to the one with the regular folks vying for the job, because it’s easier to see celebrities lose without feeling bad about it. Each of the charities they are competing for is worthy, and just mentioning them gives viewers a chance to learn more about them and consider giving to them if they can, but it’s not sad when one of the celebrities gets fired. I watch this program, almost study it, because as a human being and as a writer, I’m very interested in the differences and similarities there are between us all. This show is like a microcosm of human behavior under pressure, and another great way to people watch and take notes.
The question that came to me, caught me off guard and made me turn off the episode to ponder it. It goes something like this: What makes it hard for some people with lots of money and more so-called sophisticated tastes, to understand when they’re insulting people who work middle class jobs? On the surface, the answer seems obvious, but it didn’t strike me that way in this specific case. I don’t think these people would think to insult those who struggle to eke out a living. If they would never do that, then why tolerate such an insult to anyone? Why didn’t they notice? I think that’s more my question. Here’s what happened:
In a commercial to extol the new wider availability of a specific information product, Meat Loaf came up with the character of a police officer who recovers a stolen vehicle and then goes looking for doughnuts. (You know, the old chestnut about police officers hanging out at the doughnut shop.) This isn’t the most offensive thing anyone could think of by a long shot, I know, but the task was to come up with a commercial that could be successful with the general public. Marlee Matlin, who was the project manager and whose husband is a police officer (which broadens my question), goes along with this idea without hesitation. It’s entirely possible that Star Jones, the other person on their team, would never give this aspect of their commercial a second thought, although I’m sure she would gladly ignore it to benefit her position, even if she had. My own father was a police officer, but even so, I don’t think that all people in any profession or group automatically deserve immunity from being the subject of humor. Still, I immediately understood that while one gives voice to all ideas while creatively brainstorming, this doughnut thing wasn’t going to work for them– unless they wanted to offend someone. A lot of someones.
How could Marlee Matlin have missed this problem? Meat Loaf seems like a sensitive guy (from what I’ve seen on this series) so what was missing in his thought process? Was their cluelessness here more about how and where they make their living? Or was it about personality type? Am I feeding into an increasingly shrill shouting match between social ‘classes’ by merely bringing this up? I hope not, because I think it’s about empathy.
A conversation about this feels important on more than one level, but I prefer to look for answers by digging down deep into an issue and searching for some roots, not just the shoots that grow up out of it. Looking at it that way, I’m inclined to believe that this is more about society’s attitudes toward empathy in general. I think a lot of the backlash against political correctness is about it being more of a band-aid, or a shield, than a careful reflection on the meaning of empathy. Considered on its own, without regard to how one is seen by others, empathy isn’t widely seen as being an important subject. A lot of what we say and do collectively these days, from politics to gossip and what is and isn’t considered news, doesn’t have very much to do with thinking about other people’s feelings before we share our thoughts or do our deeds.
It might help to think of empathy as a muscle. Very often it’s not so much that we as individuals don’t have the capacity for it, as it is that many of us just choose a flow to go along with and then don’t take much time to focus on strengthening this vital part of our core. And we all know what happens when you don’t exercise a muscle. It doesn’t respond so well when you really need it.