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Empathy fatigue: painful fact or privileged fiction?

Amid what can feel like overwhelming times, many activists are ‘choosing their battles’ in order to avoid burnout. EMILY INGRAM explores the issues

IN THE “post-lockdown” world, checking the news can often feel like a grisly, dystopian ritual. 

Our news feeds are a veritable flood of misery: more avoidable Covid-19 deaths; police brutality; the worsening climate crisis; rampant homophobia; the list is endless.

In some cases, the natural reaction is to switch off. This is where the idea of “empathy fatigue” or “ally fatigue” comes in — for activists, particularly those not directly affected by their causes, it can seem almost too easy to “take a step back” in the name of self-preservation.

This notion is far from new. Empathy fatigue or burnout has been studied rigorously over the years, and is most commonly found in emotionally demanding pursuits such as nursing, social care and counselling. 

Sharon Coen is a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Salford. As a specialist in social psychology and media, she is currently examining the relationship between media engagement and social activism.

She first came across the concept of compassion fatigue in Italy, where she was working as part of a European project on occupational health risks. 

“Nurses are constantly exposed to pain and suffering, and this is emotionally very demanding,” she explains. 

“Our data showed how they often find it difficult to help, due to social and structural issues in the health profession. This is exhausting, and can sometimes lead to protective behaviours.”

After shifting her focus to climate change and media psychology, Coen noticed an interesting parallel. 

“The key question on [climate change] is, why do people resist? Why do they resist news concerning an objective risk — that is, the risk that is associated with climate collapse?

“One of the reasons that we were looking at was moral disengagement. So, like nurses switching off their heart in the face of a seemingly impossible task, people switch off their moral compass when it comes to climate: ‘I don’t have the moral responsibility for this, so I don’t need to care about this enormous problem’.”

She goes on to stress that this is a reasonable response, particularly in current times.

“If you feel overwhelmed by the news, or the calls on social media that say ‘you should worry about this, you should worry about that’ — it becomes an extremely distressing experience, because you feel pulled in all directions.

“You want to help everywhere. And it comes to a point where you understand that, actually, it’s impossible.”

But with so many issues that demand our immediate attention, can we really afford to look away? 

The simplest answer is No. To those who are unable to distance themselves from social or political issues, empathy fatigue can seem like yet another expression of privilege in action.

“I’m a bit sceptical of the term when it’s used to talk about activists fighting things that they aren’t directly impacted by,” says Jack, a community activist based in Liverpool.

“It just seems to me like centring your own feelings within someone else’s struggle: if you benefit from a system of oppression — racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia — and are claiming to have fatigue, then imagine how the people who actually suffer it feel.”
Yet, another dimension of this debate is the sheer proliferation of causes on social media, particularly in the wake of Covid-19.

“Frankie” (name changed on request), an LGBTQ+ activist and Black Lives Matter (BLM) ally, argues that the way some issues are conveyed online can actually prevent meaningful engagement.

“I find the memeification of ‘Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor’ completely exhausting,” they explain.

“I haven't been able to attend any protests [during lockdown] as I’m high risk and don’t want to put myself in danger right now — the fact that I can take that step back is privilege.

“[But] I’m tired of feeling like there’s nothing I can do — I can’t donate, I can’t protest and I don’t WANT to retweet memes about the murder of a sleeping black woman.” 

Chris, a software developer from Canterbury, was pleasantly surprised to see support for the latest wave of the Black Lives Matter movement in his home town — but he remains weary of online engagement.

“As a person of mixed race, I’ve been long aware of the ingrained racism in society and recently begun to come to terms with events in my past.

“For me, involvement is a very subjective thing, and to sound a little cynical, I always wonder if someone will engage on social media for personal validation or an actual desire to see positive change.”

On this point, Coen suggests that those suffering burnout — be they organisers or allies — should change their approach to activism online, rather than simply ignoring important issues.

“Number one: talk about it. In Italy, we say ‘mal comune, mezzo gaudio,’ which means that ‘a common pain is half a joy.’

“So, when you realise that you’re not alone experiencing what you’re experiencing, and when you are able to share or be listened to by your peers — or someone you deem more expert or familiar with that field — that helps.”

Coen also advises against spreading oneself too thinly, or attempting to engage with too many topics at once.

“Choose your battles. We’re part of a collective, not everything is down to us as individuals. 

“So we can make a conscious choice not to engage in a cause, while not diminishing its moral value — therefore avoiding moral disengagement.”

Crucially, though, she notes that those who can freely disengage with issues of oppression should always remember their position of privilege. 

“We’re not responsible because we are prejudiced, we’re responsible because we don’t give support,” she explains.

“I think, sometimes, it’s enough to say ‘you have my support. I understand. I will do what I can not to become part of the problem — more than I am by default.’

“That’s very different from saying ‘I can’t care about it. I’m tired. I can’t deal with it.’

“But you are going to get angry responses sometimes: when you ask someone to support you and they are not coming to help you, no matter how nicely they say it, you’re still alone — and it still hurts.”


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