Home » Progress » Love » Can Anything from Donald Trump Teach Us About Empathy?

Can Anything from Donald Trump Teach Us About Empathy?

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.)

Marlee Matlin Photo by Larry D. Moore

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:

Meat Loaf Photo by Mr. Mushnik

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.


19 thoughts on “Can Anything from Donald Trump Teach Us About Empathy?

  1. This was a really fabulous, thought-provoking entry. At first, the following jumped out at me and I was going to focus on it:
    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.

    So well put! This is why I struggle with putting negative words out there. Sometimes it’ll be a necessary part of healing, but I feel like every negative word I say (or write) is a lost opportunity to brighten someone’s day with kind words. It’s not always just about what’s actually put out there, but about what could have been put out there instead.

    Your comment about your inner hippie made me laugh. I so relate to this! I grew up in granola-loving Eugene, Oregon, so that I’ll sometimes look at how earnestly I assess my work and modifying behaviors for it and feel a little put-off by myself. It’s an unfortunate consequence of taking all the debt correlated with law school, turns out! I can’t just go live on a nature commune without even more consequences. Darn it.

    On the empathy front, I think that’s hands-down the best thing my mom did for me and my siblings: She strove to ensure her kids were empathetic to others. If someone did something perplexing, she’d have us consider what we couldn’t see that might make them do such a thing. Starting to imagine the scenarios that would make someone take “incomprehensible” action made it easier to understand what all everyone was or might be up against. She was also very clear about the hurt of being the family scapegoat . . . and realizing nothing she ever said or did would help her siblings see a little bit of the world through her eyes. Even after she died, I told one of my uncles I’d be willing to stay in touch with him if he would respect my mom–which wasn’t to say he couldn’t disagree with things she’d done–but that was too much for him. They’re all stuck remembering some ancient version of my mom, who fortunately didn’t let that harden her heart to her siblings or others. If she had, I think I’d be a very different person with very different siblings.

    • Thanks for your comments on this one! I’m glad you liked it, and that you see the subject of empathy as important too. It is wonderful when we can learn these kinds of important lessons at home when we’re young. Those are the lessons we can remember best.

  2. I enjoyed this piece– it reminded me why I’m not a fan of television, especially not a fan of watching celebrities who have so little to offer: nothing more than spectacle. What is it about those 15 minutes of fame that seems to clear the clock and render a once-famous person so blank, clueless, mindless?
    To be fair, I’m sure there are celebrities thinking or doing something important out there. But I think TV prefers to show hollow people. Why is that?

    • Referring to shows I just don’t see the appeal of, like Jersey Shore and The Bachelor (ugh!) and all that ilk, I’m in total agreement. This particular one works for me mostly because of the actual amount of work that has to be done in order to succeed at the task. I don’t watch things like Dancing with the Stars because I don’t care, but they actually do work on that one, too, so I have some respect for it. Television is a sore subject for a lot of people these days, but so far the programs I’ve been choosing have helped to save my life. I firmly believe that loneliness is a dangerous thing. TV helps to move me from lonely to alone, and I find that alone is much more manageable.

  3. What an interesting piece, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts.

    There are, however, a couple of hills for me to get over.

    “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?”

    The first is my shock at someone of your apparent nature watching anything involving that jumped up buffoon. We have an expression in the English language, “trumped up” meaning false or unsubstantiated. A “trumped up” person is a jackass, a loud-mouthed twit, with ideas above their capabilities. It sits easily with this Donald Trump character don’t you think?

    The second hill is this: On this side of the Atlantic, we hold the belief America is classless. More than that! Everyone has an equal stake, as much opportunity to savour the American Dream as the next human being. So when you talk about “middle class” it hits me like a brick that my perceptions are all to hell and back.

    England is world famous for our (apparent) Class System. I need say no more than, in England anyone can be “trumped up”, anyone from a king, a property developer to a street sweeper, shop girl or pauper. Trumped up is classless.

    I wonder, therefore, despite our reputation, is England in fact the true torchbearer of classlessness, the true purveyors of what was once “The American Dream”.

    • The class system is definitely alive in the US, and I do believe that Donald Trump is “trumped up” and without a smidgen of class. Many of the people in charge here, those who have plenty of money, not only seem to hate those of us who don’t, but they also seem to want to be served by us somehow– as if we owe them more than they would ever subject themselves to. I think that’s a post for a day when I can write about it without ranting.

      My biggest problem with being a consumer and a consumer of culture (and with life in general) is that no matter what I do, something I can’t control within my choices often goes against my personal principles. So many unsavory things in the world are comingled with the ‘not so bad’ because of industry and the rise of the “corporate umbrella” idea of housing many businesses together under one brand, and trying to keep the consumer in the dark as much as possible. Simply by purchasing electricity for my home, I unwillingly support not only nuclear energy, but two coal-fired power plants within my own city. I make my choices just a little more calmly these days because I realize that hating myself because I can’t stay completely true to every principle I believe in, no matter how much I cut out of my life, creates a madness in me that doesn’t actually benefit the world.

      This TV program, perhaps inadvertently, can illustrate things about thinking, getting along with coworkers, and how to become employed, that seminars charge for. I watch it because it’s full of easily available information, both practical and emotional, and I can do so with thoughts in my head that reach farther than just the sadly amusing events that often unfold onscreen. Thanks for your comment. You always make me think farther about my points, and I really appreciate that.

  4. Marlee
    May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

    • Hi, Edwin. I visited your website and love the idea of it! I found the first of the videos at the bottom of your home page to be very thought provoking. At first, Askimet and I both thought your comment was spam, but something made me check it out. If you’re using a machine to send these comments because of a lack of man/woman power, I can understand, but that’s technically still spam (I’m Ré, by the way, not Marlee 🙂 ) and it may not work the way you want it to. Have you found that many bloggers do a search because of your subject, as I did? This also serves as an interesting offshoot of my point to Rivenrod about the difficulty in staying true to one’s principles in our complicated, interdependent world.

  5. Great post. I don’t know if I hate Trump, hate is such a strong word. I definitely dislike him. I don’t believe he is smart, I think he has blind luck. I think he is a shining example of life just not being fair.

    “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?”

    I’ve oft thought of this. An acquaintance of mine, nice bloke, programmer for a non-profit, religious but not pushy about it, does a lot of charity work. He came over one day while we were watching King of Queens to show off his new iPad. He commented on how he didn’t like the show because it was unrealistic, I asked him how so. He said (paraphrasing) that it was unrealistic because how could a truck driver for IPS afford a house and implied that therefore truck drivers should realistically avoid the American dream of the white picket fence. Well, I was a little taken aback, I’ve been a truck driver before, in fact I’ve pretty much worked all menial jobs my whole life. I don’t know, maybe it’s because he still has the arrogance of youth, he’s certainly not wealthy and I know he’s a good guy. I think most of these people just have the Ayn Rand objectivism bug that seems to be the current raison d’être amongst the sickeningly wealthy and view the rest of us as inconsequential. With contempt. What little civility they do show is just a facade.

    I think you’re just a little to close to the police officer thing (being that your father was an officer) and noticed it more. That’s a matter of life’s perspective. You grew up with fond memories of cops, others may have not. I grew up in Washington Heights, NY, during the onslaught of the crack epidemic. I saw, as a child, drug deals go down in my neighborhood under the watchful eye(s) of the cops patrolling the neighborhood. I don’t dislike cops, I don’t trust them though. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not disrespectful to officers and I respect what they do and a good honest cop (as I am sure your father was) is worth his or her weight in gold. I was just trying to illustrate why you picked up on it and found it offensive, while many others would not. If Marlee where coming at the objective from strictly a marketing stand point many more would find the donut thing funny as opposed to finding it offensive. After all, find me one person that got a parking or speeding ticket they “deserved”. Cops are an easy target for laughs.

    • Thanks for visiting! Yes they are, as many of us are, but I think the whole thing struck me more because Marlee’s husband is a cop. That made me feel really weird, like there was another question underneath, hence, this post.

      I’m glad you mentioned the Ayn Rand objectivism thing, because a CSPAN interview I saw a few weeks ago with a seemingly kindly writer who embraces those views, has been bugging me. In the objectivist’s view of society, each community gets to decide its own standards and then work together to address what it deems important to its local citizens– so there would be no laws legislating things like inclusiveness. There would be no legal opposition to exclusion from anything on the basis of race, income, gender, mental issues or any other state of being that a community decides they don’t care about. That anyone believes the real possibilty of this would make a stronger, better society makes me wonder if we’re all sitting in that proverbial handbasket.

      • There is nothing kind about objectivism, seemingly or otherwise. It’s a completely psychotic philosophy of self indulged fantasy. A philosophy that is socially destructive. Ayn Rand suggests that everyone needs to be “self-sufficient” and tries to constantly illustrate this in her novels, that’s why there are no children in an Ayn Rand novel. Children can’t be self-sufficient, this would make her point moot. She places her ideals in worlds that she built, on rules that she made, her fiction world. A world she controls and says LOOK, it works. People flock to her ideals as though she were some sort of great philosopher when in reality she was nothing more than a second rate science fiction writer.

        I write fiction based on demonology, theology and the like. I’ve read through the Satanic Bible. The first 30 pages go through the “philosophical” points, the whole thing reads like a corporate manifesto (only more honest). These beliefs are not much different than the Ayn Rand objectvist, same thing really just more straight forward. Kind of sad when a Satan worshiper is more honest than a capitalist, lol.

        It’s common knowledge that Rand was an atheist, I don’t think she chose that philosophy because she didn’t believe in God. She didn’t have much choice to be an atheist, if she had believed in God she most definitely would have ended up in hell.

        I believe in capitalism, I do not believe in greed. And that is the problem we have right now, some folk at the top are just too greedy. Objectvism not only promotes greed, it worships it. Greed is pretty much what brings down any civilization. Nil novi sub sol.

        Sorry bout the rant, Rand’s been aggravating me lately because a lot of the wealthy running our country subscribe to her nonsense. Gore Vidal said it best:

        “She has a great attraction for simple people who are puzzled by organized society, who object to paying taxes, who dislike the welfare state, who feel guilt at the thought of the suffering of others but who would like to harden their hearts. For them, she has an enticing prescription: altruism is the root of all evil, self-interest is the only good, and if you’re dumb or incompetent that’s your lookout.”

  6. This is my 2nd attempt at writing this comment? aargh! I am behind in my reading (and seemingly, my writing as well), but I almost always get my blessings just when I need them! I appreciated the more conversational tone, as well as the self-inquiry, of this post. Empathy is a subject we can never learn enough about. It seems to be among our greatest deficiencies. Its absence is particularly salient in discussions about politics, the economy, and social programming. Sadly enough, it is excusable by too many. Furthermore, it continues to widen the distance, and opportunity for meaningful dialogue that can move us forward in a collective transformation as a united people. My hope is that, through continued engagement of thought and discussion, we are able to transcend our hang-ups, ignorances, and the things that we simply don’t know, or think we cared about. I love that in this virtual blogosphere – this community of writers, artists, and thinkers – we CHOOSE language that asks more questions than it makes assumptions – while still maintaining healthy levels of respect and decorum. I am thankful for that space. Thanks for reminding us to use that empathy ‘muscle’ more often!

    • Thanks for your comment, dear Empress. I’ve been losing comments on other people’s blogs lately, too, so you’re not alone! I’m glad you got through with this one. It’s always good to hear your voice in the discussion.

  7. Pingback: FTIAT: One of the Things I’m Grateful For « The Monster in Your Closet

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