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The vanishing art of empathy
Tom Purcell
Tom Purcell

Joe Biden reminded the world what grace looks like. 

Robert Trump, President Trump’s younger brother, died Saturday. In response, Biden tweeted: 

“Mr. President, Jill and I are sad to learn of your younger brother Robert’s passing. I know the tremendous pain of losing a loved one - and I know how important family is in moments like these. I hope you know that our prayers are with you all.” 

Biden’s grace reminds us that despite how heated political rhetoric can be, we’re all human in the end - and when tragedy and death occur, we must set our differences aside and celebrate our common humanity. We must demonstrate our empathy. 

Regrettably, empathy is on the decline for many.  

Just minutes after Robert Trump’s death, some Donald Trump opponents showed the opposite of compassion by tweeting that “the wrong Trump died.” 

“Almost immediately after news of his death was released, tweets calling for the US President’s death were posted using the hashtag #wrongtrump, which quickly became the number four trending topic on Twitter,” reports the Advertiser. 

Such class. 

Politics tends to bring out the worst in us. President Trump, no stranger to vitriolic tweets, brings out the worst in a lot of people.  

But empathy’s decline preceded Trump’s presidency. It’s been declining for years. 

Dr. Helen Riess, author of “The Empathy Effect,” says empathy’s decline has to do with social media. 

A Street Roots report on her book says “many of the neurological keys to feeling empathy are missing from the exchange” when we communicate through texts, email and social media posts.  

Communicating electronically, not face to face, there’s no eye contact, and no paying attention to body language and facial expressions. 

Without such visual emotional cues, Riess says, we’re left with words on a screen, leading to detachment, emotional indifference - and, we are all noticing more, some very nasty tweets.   

“Interviews with internet trolls are shocking in that they reveal these online agitators don’t tend to view their victims as real people,” she writes. 

An increasing number of people treat those they disagree with this way - which contributes to the decline of the civil discourse our country needs to address sizable problems. 

Luckily, I live in Pittsburgh, where empathy is common. We hold doors open for strangers, wave other motorists in front of us, and stop our cars to help with roadside breakdowns.

But even in Pittsburgh, like the rest of the country, some people are getting ruder and meaner as online empathy wanes. 

Viewing political opponents as inhuman, even evil, you may feel you have license to shout at - or even assault - them.  

Aren’t we seeing more news stories about people assaulted for wearing the “wrong” baseball cap or supporting the “wrong” political idea?  

Though Riess says empathy is being blunted, she emphasizes to Forbes that it can be learned.  

That takes a conscious effort. We need to get out from behind our electronic devices and engage in person (harder in the covid-19 era, but important). We need to set politics aside now and then to celebrate our common humanity. 

Just as Joe Biden did with his classy tweet to President Trump.

Tom Purcell is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist. Send comments to Tom at