We discussed the tensions between the #BlackLivesMatter and the #AllLivesMatter movements, and worked together to identify arguments on both sides of this debate. Then, to illustrate how empathy can engage citizens and reduce audience resistance, I showed the class a recent video of a 9-year-old girl, Zianna Oliphant, tearfully addressing a Charlotte, North Carolina, city council meeting.
“It’s a shame that our fathers and mothers are killed and we can’t see them anymore,” she said, tears streaming down her cheeks. “It’s a shame that we have to go to their graveyard and bury them. And we have tears. We shouldn’t have tears. We need our fathers and mothers to be by our side.”
As soon as the clip ended I felt a stillness across the class. Awkwardly, I asked, “So, after watching this, how do you think empathy might operate in the heart and mind of someone who has opposed the #BlackLivesMatter movement?”
After a few seconds, a young woman in the back raised her hand.
“I was going to say something unrelated,” she hesitated, fidgeting with her pen. “I actually saw this video last night. I saw some of it. But, it made me feel so bad that I had to shut it off.”
My entire line of research is based on the assumption that emotions are a gateway to political engagement. So, you can imagine my conundrum when this young woman simply and honestly stated that her emotional response to this video had been so strong she had to shut it off.
Now, it’s not as though I didn’t know that such aversion to feelings of guilt, sadness, and anxiety existed. I’d even experienced it myself. In August, a video showed up in my newsfeed, of 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh from Aleppo, sitting bloody and covered in ash, alone in an ambulance. I couldn’t bring myself to watch it. So, yes, I recognized that negative emotions can cause people to tune out and shut down.
Through social media and digital technologies, not only do people learn about events, but they vicariously experience them. Through iReports and testimonials, through Facebook and Twitter posts from people at the forefront, Americans live every conflict and tragedy as though they are our own. Which should be beneficial from a democratic standpoint, if my hypothesis is correct: “People act when they feel,” I wrote.
But if feeling too much causes people to tune out, then this hypothesis must be wrong.
This realization on my part—that becoming overloaded by negative emotions may be dysfunctional—is old news in the world of media theory. In 1996, Rod Hart from the University of Texas argued that Americans expend so much energy watching the stuff of politics on the television that they feel too tired to take action themselves. “Television can be draining because it can be energizing,” wrote Hart. Robert Entman of George Washington University suggested in 1989 that television was creating a “democracy without citizens,” as viewers became spectators watching, rather than engaging in, political life.