I’m deeply concerned about the troubling rise of empathy politics amongst liberals and progressives on social media and on Harvard’s campus. We’re living in an era where YouTubers with millions of subscribers like Shane Dawson brag about being empaths and companies like Jubilee start entire empathy campaigns. They create video series rehabilitating notorious racists and invite trans people and members of other marginalized groups to debate their existence — all in empathy’s name.
This trend takes on its own unique shape at Harvard. Amongst Harvard students, empathy merch and posts on Instagram stories abound, stating or implying that if we only felt more empathy for each other, we could solve the world’s problems and amend political cleavages.
Having college students regularly sacrifice their basic nutrition and mental health needs, undergo chronic stress and sleep deprivation, and debate whether or not to attend class while sick during a pandemic should not be as pervasive as it is now. These problems stem from the idea that the individual is entirely responsible for their mental health and wellbeing, which limits help-seeking behaviors, especially amongst youth, perpetuating depression, anxiety, ADHD, suicide, and a host of other issues.
This ideology of toxic self-reliance is especially pervasive at universities like Harvard. It creates a culture that relies on a fixed privileged view that assumes all people should be like the (white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, male) default who are (supposedly) entirely self-reliant. Yet, mental health should never be an individual battle. Harvard’s expectation of excellence currently relies on a deeply rooted ableism, both mental and physical, creating a campus that is not built for people who have different capabilities, implying that differences are deficits.
Over my short time thus far at Harvard, I’ve been shocked at some of the racist comments and actions of my professors. Even more disturbing, however, have been the discussions and debates over what to do with these professors when their words and behavior are brought into the limelight.
It is clear to me that despite the many claims I’ve heard about wanting to create a safe and equitable environment for marginalized students, their wellbeing is rarely prioritized. In conversations about how Harvard should handle members of its community that spread racism or other forms of bigotry, I’ve been frustrated because the potential growth of the perpetrator, and the debate over how much they are to blame, often takes center stage over the healing, safety, and comfort of those harmed.
When I arrived on Harvard’s campus as a first-year last fall, I felt a strong culture shock as I transitioned from my almost all-white conservative suburb to Cambridge’s predominantly white liberal environment.
I was used to being confronted with Trump signs on the walk home from the bus stop, but instead, I ran into Black Lives Matter signs on what felt like every street corner and shop. Students at Harvard included BLM slogans and iconography in their Undergraduate Council campaigns, whereas at my high school students actively tried to dodge questions of race; they claimed that it was a “racism-free” environment when a question was raised as to why the student government candidates were disproportionately white.
As Harvard welcomes its largest-ever cohort of freshmen onto campus, more students than ever will come to realize an ironic truth. Although a passion for learning may have brought them here, perhaps an even more critical aspect of their experience will be unlearning what they have been taught their whole lives and will continue to be taught in many of Harvard’s classes. This begins with the education system itself.
New students need to confront and reject the logics and values of the multiple systems of oppression that have and will continue to warp their educational experiences. However, this is no simple task: Many of these harmful ideas disguise themselves in seemingly benign and ubiquitous social values and practices, at which most people would never blink twice.