People often attach sentimental value to things that shouldn’t normally invoke strong emotions. From big-eyed pets that melt us with unconditional love, to the criminals on the big-screen we sympathize with — to even material objects like that old pair of sneakers you just can’t bring yourself to throw away — seeking connection in somewhat unlikely places seems intrinsic.
But at times, we fall for this otherwise romantic idea so hard we forget how to connect with our own kind. Often, we care more about meaningless junk than we do actual humans.
In the age of social media and technology — where not sharing your feelings online is almost equivalent to not having them — parading empathy about trending issues is perhaps the new way to seek connection. It’s a fact even, that sharing on social media and receiving likes increase dopamine levels.
And what raises likes faster than a girl’s bikini photos or an inspirational quote? Demonstrating revolt against inhumane acts, and more specifically, those that involve helpless animals.
As repulsive as such deeds may be in the eyes of some, society seems to be far more stirred by tragic deaths of animals than by those perpetrated by humans. Anybody can feel bad about a dead kid, but feeling bad a dead animal, now that takes a real sense of empathy.
"We’re surrounded by death and evil, but we don’t complain until someone shoots a cheetah? That seems a bit arbitrary, if you ask me."
Journalist Matt Walsh illustrates the point by comparing the wave of condemnation following the trophy-hunting of “Cecil the Lion” as it relates to the debate of abortion — deaths of real human beings. He goes on to make the same point in 2015 after a photo of a blonde teenager who hunted a lion went viral, that if we thought of babies like cubs, perhaps termination of pregnancies would stop.
“Herein lies my struggle, America,” he writes. “This is why I’m such a cynic. I just can’t take your outrage seriously. We’re surrounded by death and evil, but we don’t complain until someone shoots a cheetah? That seems a bit arbitrary, if you ask me.”
Regardless of your take on Walsh’s conservatism or the points at hand, he definitely has a point.
A study by two sociologists at Northeastern University show in different experiments that people are generally more shaken up by bad things happening to dogs, and respectively would be more willing to prevent them, than by human tragedies. The bottom line is that people are most tuned into the fates of innocent and defenseless beings.
The series of experiments goes to show not only our misplaced priorities, but also shines a light on the often hypocritical nature of our empathy — it is as strong as it is convenient, leaving animals who serve some of our other needs, like food or medicine, out of our hearts. Walsh reaches the same conclusion, stating that if caring for lions demanded real-life effort, our empathy would quickly fade away.
And while disproportionally caring about animals is still a display of humanity, even though channeled in the wrong place, we might be stepping further away even from that consolation prize. Technology’s advent and the facilitation of human connection that was meant to come with it has had a somewhat reverse effect, at least on those who abuse “the perks” of the new era.
Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor, writer and motivational speaker, explains in both her book “Alone Together” and her accompanying TED talk about how over-simplifying human connections actually mutilates it to the point of having a normal conversation. Human connection is not meant to be overly simplistic, she argues, and its quality is directly proportional to the effort we invest in it, even when that means going through the boring parts.
By dumbing it down to a few instant emojis and button clicks, we not only hinder our communication with others, but with ourselves as well.
“We use conversations with each other to learn how to have conversations with ourselves,” Turkle says.
She goes on to explain that in her research she discovered people wishing for an advanced version of SIRI — one that can listen and be a best friend. Elderly people wanted to alleviate their loneliness with the help of sociable robots that mimic empathy, too.
“From social networks to sociable robots, we are designing technologies that will give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship,” Turkle states.
This cultural shift that favors anything superficial, as long as it’s easy, over the raw messiness of real life connection, is imperceptibly leading us towards a future which a few years ago could have passed for a fictional dystopia. The advancement of sexbots, and more importantly, the drive behind it, speaks for the vicious circle of loneliness that whirls around technology at its center.
“So when people tell me that we’re teaching people to treat each other like objects, I explain it’s actually the other way around: we’re treating objects like people,” says Matt McMullen, the CEO of a company that produces high-end realistic sex dolls.
“And companionship has really overtaken sex as our primary concern now. … Because technology has bred a loneliness epidemic,” he continues.
McMullen isn’t bothered by the accusations of basically undercutting the market of human relationships and thus endangering them, because his work is the reflection of the market’s demand, not vice versa.
“I see the interest in my products as a symptom of a larger problem: that human beings are forgetting how to connect with the people around them,” he adds.
Technology seems to be just another form of addiction. By giving us a quick fix of a fake connection, it only makes our craving grow stronger and our abilities to create real bonds weaker. Our desperation makes us look for traces of humanity in anything but in the very humans we share the world with.
Breaking out of that cycle might take real, old-fashioned efforts. However seeing them finally pay off might be like watching a flower grow amidst a wasteland. It would for sure feel more human than any Facebook like, or even a pet’s otherwise sweet unconditional love.