You can learn much about what a civilization lacks by observing what sentiments it elevates as an ideal. The ancient Greeks, who invented the concept of the “golden mean” between extremes, were, on the basis of Greek tragedy and historical accounts, given to wild eruptions of rage. For years now, Americans have exalted empathy as our king of sentiments, but on the evidence of everyday life, empathy is in short supply.
We’re surrounded by polls, studies, memes, and viral events said to reveal or shape our national existence. It could be, though, that the social forces that most determine our collective destiny are barely talked about because they are impossible to quantify. To take one profoundly consequential trend: nearly one in four American adults is taking psychiatric medication, and a substantial portion of these people report experiencing “emotional blunting”—an inability to feel their own and other people’s emotions.
Over the last few years, I lost two close friends to the effects of psychiatric medication. Both had been taking antidepressants for many years. One was on Trazodone, which, along with stunting empathy, causes reckless behavior and problems with impulse control. I watched as he blew up his marriage and in one instance publicly humiliated his wife and teenaged children. I’ll never forget the strange, dislocated grin he wore the last time I saw him. He had come with his children for lunch and began showing my wife and me pictures of his third child, whom he had just had with his new wife, as the two children he had raised with his first wife stood there, stricken and speechless. And yet he grinned as if we were all having the time of our lives.
I had been very fond of him, but the second friend, whom I knew for 20 years, I had loved. He was a kind, deep-feeling, brilliant, funny, creative prince of a man. But he began to act irrationally, missing basic emotional cues, finally emotionally hurting my son, whom my wife and I had, out of trustfulness, allowed him to sponsor in some way. I gently asked him to be a little more conscientious with our son and he said that he would—then gave me that same dislocated, jack-o’-lantern grin I had seen from my other friend. When he never did change his heedless behavior toward our son and I reproached him in an email, he exploded and tried to retaliate against me professionally.
I cannot make any significant connection between the behavior of my two old friends and what I knew to be their characters. Sure, what they became might have been lying deep within them all along. But considering the widely studied and reported side effects of emotional blunting, it seems almost certain that their empathy was broken by the psychiatric medication, the way any powerful drug can turn an inactive physical condition into an emergency.
We all hear sophisticated explanations for the divisions in America now: political, cultural, social, historical. They are all legitimate, in one degree or another. But it seems to me that the widespread use of drugs that can abolish our ability to empathize with what another person is feeling risks creating a collective hell—even if it is a living, functional, and sometimes even pleasurable and gratifying one.
As what one might call a celebrity emotion, empathy is often simplified and caricatured. It’s hardly an entirely positive attribute. Being able to feel what another person is feeling can also allow someone to manipulate or injure another person. Sadists can be as empathetic as therapists. Iago is the most empathetic figure in literature—he feels every nuance and degree of Othello’s insecurity and plays on them to destroy him.
Yet in a democratic society, where individual freedom abounds at historically unique levels, empathy is indispensable. In a dictatorship, it doesn’t matter if you’re aware of another person’s inner state; the regime regulates relations between people. In a democracy, however, the people themselves regulate the relations between them. In order for that arrangement to proceed harmoniously, people must grasp what others are feeling.
Tocqueville knew this. After discussing how, in an aristocratic society, people understand only the feelings of members of their own class, he describes life in a capitalist democracy, in which even class and region are far more porous than birthright and pedigree. In a democracy, he writes,
each [man] may judge in a moment of the sensations of all the others; he casts a rapid glance upon himself, and that is enough. There is no wretchedness into which he cannot readily enter, and a secret instinct reveals to him its extent. It signifies not that strangers or foes be the sufferers; imagination puts him in their place; something like a personal feeling is mingled with his pity, and makes himself suffer whilst the body of his fellow-creature is in torture. In democratic ages men rarely sacrifice themselves for one another; but they display general compassion for the members of the human race. They inflict no useless ills; and they are happy to relieve the griefs of others, when they can do so without much hurting themselves; they are not disinterested, but they are humane.
“He casts a rapid glance upon himself, and that is enough.” That is to say, the condition for feeling what others are feeling is to find that emotion in oneself. This is the basic precept of Method acting, perhaps the truest expression of the complexity of the democratic personality ever produced—for all its Russian origins—by American culture. Method acting’s central principle is simple: find an experience and emotion in yourself similar to what the character is experiencing and feeling, and then you can make that character come alive. Delicately balanced against the Method actor’s radical submersion in himself is a radical submerging of himself in another. The Method actor’s experience embodies the drama of American individualism. To put it more concretely: when Philip Seymour Hoffman’s inner torments became public after his death from a drug overdose, I understood why his portrayal of the tormented Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman had reduced me and other people in the audience to tears.
If it is true that the essence of a functioning democracy is the ability of its people to feel empathy for one another, then the widespread reliance on antidepressants—and I lament not their necessary use, but their unnecessary overuse—is like some cruel joke. Add to the pharmacological cultivation of emotional blunting the emotionally blunting effect of lives lived increasingly online, and you have a democracy resting on a fundamentally anti-democratic way of life. The Cassandras who see democracy about to collapse at every turn might want to look in their own medicine cabinets.