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Wendt Center Update

Tuesday, March 4, 2014  
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Are today’s media so distracting that we’ve lost our empathy for others?  Politicians and theologians alike observe that the income gap widens.  But recent sociological research identifies another significant and alarming trend:  a compassion gap.  Studies at the University of Michigan observe that younger generations demonstrate less empathy and compassion than earlier generations. Potential causes may vary, points out Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times.  Some point to neurological changes in the brain while some experiments “suggest that affluence may erode compassion.”[1] Others speculate that violent video games desensitize or that Social Media and the constant distractions of technology are contributing factors. 

Wendt Scholars investigated the links between character and social media at a recent meeting.  In preparation for the Wendt Character Lecturer, Nicholas Carr, Monday, March 10, at 7:00 p.m. in Butler Hall, the Scholars questioned their own use of media, as well as the pitfalls and the promises of what particular platforms, programs and media are biased toward.

Earlier in the semester, the students took a media use survey.  From that they broke into interest groups for discussion and reflection.  This is only a survey of 60 people (including 5 mentors), but the results are interesting and raise questions for me to think about. 

That 47 use smart phones makes me wonder about the 13 people who don’t—there’s a gap of perhaps affluence, access, and social participation.  When 36 people never touch a newspaper, it’s no surprise other sources are critical for information gathering.  That the majority of people keep up with Facebook makes me wonder if the 9 who don’t use it experience the latest hot issue: FOMO or fear of missing out.  With almost half using Twitter, I’m not surprised by the grammatical errors in the messages I receive from them.  But that a majority of these students—good, caring, students--are so engaged in the objectification that occurs when we snap pictures or even view/consume them, helps me understand the growing compassion gap.

Pictures can be a fun way to have vicarious experiences, but they also create a distance, a space where we can stand back and see a scene or the people in the shot as objects, cardboard cutouts, particularly when the sheer amount of images and the speed of sharing them has increased. Then laughing at the pictures, leering, or lusting can become normalized; we forget those are real people, real image-bearers of God.

Technology changes faster than our ability to reflect on its appropriate use.  Nevertheless, calling for reflection and challenging one another to use it thoughtfully, caringly, and carefully is something each one of us can do.  This week, when you reach for your phone…computer…camera…iPod…etc., may you accept the challenge to narrow the compassion gap and find ways to use technology empathetically, compassionately, and wisely.


[1] Kristof, Nicholas.  “The Compassion Gap.”  The New York Times.  March 2, 2014:11. Print.

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