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Choosing to feel empathy as we are caught in the cycle of “zombie scrolling”

May 25, 2022

Shakirah Hunter

Durban Kwa Zulu Natal has been ravaged by different difficulties over the last year. The looting last year brought immense national reaction as well as international reaction. Then came the floods and we all were moved once again. This weekend we saw horrific pictures on social media once again. Wealthy suburbs cut off and huge holes in roads cutting off people from basic necessities and immediately unable to leave their homes. Mass evacuations were underway and people on social media expressed their fears of ever coming through this financial battering once again.

As we get the information coming in and we see the news and the extensive damage that our fellow South Africans have been enduring – many Durbanites have lamented the lack of empathy from people across the country. “You have to be here to understand it”, said most social media users. Now comparatively, we here in Johannesburg and the remainder of South Africa have been unable to fathom the reality on the ground and most of us have come to a point of apathy and lack empathy in our consumption of this news. We have been constantly bombarded with the worry and pain and difficulty of our fellow South Africans – but we have come to this point that we have news fatigue, and we are unable to feel the pain of our fellow humans are undergoing.

We do feel the pain and difficulty yet at the same time we find ourselves saying things like – “what’s happening in Durban?” And some people joking that that the people of Durban are experiencing the punishment of Allah due to something that they are doing. The statements that keep coming through seem to be very dismissive of the intensive damage and difficulty that they are facing.

Consuming bad news can break away our feelings of empathy:

Bad news is a little like chocolate or takeaway – something that in excess is not good for us.

“Our consciousness is naturally and automatically drawn to stories about danger. We are hard-wired to detect risk in our environment. This is sometimes called a ‘negativity bias’. It means our attention gravitates to news or media stories that are about suffering, death and risk.”

We tense when we see a headline that is anxiety-provoking but then quickly scroll to the next one.

“From a neurophysiological perspective,” says Titov, “our brains light up whenever we perceive a threat, something that could potentially harm us or damage us or our loved ones. We tense when we see a headline that is anxiety-provoking but then quickly scroll to the next one.

Going down the scroll hole – combating the fixation on negative events without feeling.

Bad news is so pervasive it has lately developed its own language to reflect the way we fixate on negative events, scroll the bad stuff, and check feeds at every opportunity … “News fatigue”, “doom scrolling”, “zombie scrolling”, “going down the scroll hole” are now part of our lives and can really impact how we react to the difficulties of others.

Sensationalizing bad news without feeling empathy?

We know that generating empathy is difficult, because it requires people to spend emotional energy that they’re usually reluctant to spend. And we also know that audiences can easily suffer from “empathy fatigue” when confronted with story after story, image after image, which tries to move them with tales of the suffering of others.

Empathy and compassion are powerful sources of motivation for people to behave in prosocial ways. And yet research has shown how the act of empathizing requires effort and can often involve costs, including the feeling of distress, which we choose to avoid.As Muslims we have to choose to feel and allow ourselves to learn the art of empathy. On the one and we spend of our financial selves and are quick to assist – but it is imperative that we focus on giving from our emotional selves and allowing the time to internalise the pain of loss and test from Allah. Take the time to stop – read an article or a headline and let it sit with you before sharing or forwarding.

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