The End of Empathy

Apr 12, 2019

HANNA ROSIN, HOST:

This program contains strong language and tops that might not be suitable for all listeners.

LINA MISITZIS, BYLINE: In 2015, Jack did something brazen and romantic - the kind of gesture movies end on and history textbooks hinge wars on. He went and saw about a girl.

JACK PETERSON: Just flew down there, like, in the middle of the night. I just showed up where I thought she was staying.

MISITZIS: Jack and his girlfriend had broken up. He wanted to win her back. They weren't living in the same part of the country, so he flew to her place, hoping that a trip across state lines was what it would take.

PETERSON: I'm like, look. I'm here. Let's talk. I really want to fix this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PETERSON: She picked me up, and we were driving around for a while.

MISITZIS: His girlfriend pulled into a parking lot and parked her car. Then, something terrible happened.

PETERSON: I was half naked. I was just in my boxers, and she starts strangling me.

MISITZIS: What Jack now knows is his girlfriend is crazy. Her moods change without warning. She flirts with other men and then complains to Jack when they reject her. And now she's strangling him - trying to kill him. It's probably a sight to be seen - an erratic woman in a parking lot in the middle of the night trying to kill a man wearing nothing but his underwear.

And when the cops inevitably show up, Jack does something selfless. He lies, and he says he's suicidal so that the attention will be on him.

PETERSON: I didn't want to f*** her life up, so I stayed in a mental hospital for a couple of days.

MISITZIS: Unsurprisingly, this experience is where a lot of Jack's beliefs about women start and end. It's a primary plot point in the story he tells about himself.

PETERSON: When you're just sitting in a room by yourself and you're thinking about this girl who you loved for a long time and then she tried to kill you, it's just brutal. It's just horrible. It feels like I died on that day and everything since has been this weird, purgatory nightmare.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MISITZIS: This tape you're hearing of Jack Peterson, I didn't record it. The journalist Hanna Rosin did for an NPR show called INVISIBILIA. I'm in the running for a job there. They've given me this interview as a test, to make a story out of. And though it wasn't explicitly stated, it does feel obvious that I should craft it to sound like an INVISIBILIA story, which is to say empathically - a thorough and thoughtful look at Jack Peterson's brain, how his character traits were born and what we can learn from them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: This is that NPR show called INVISIBILIA. I'm that journalist, Hanna Rosin.

ALIX SPIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Alix Spiegel.

ROSIN: And that was producer Lina Misitzis you heard at the top of the show. Like Lina said, we gave her the tape recording we'd already done with Jack and paid her to make a story out of it. It's something we do in the radio business when we're interested in hiring someone. It helps us to see how they think.

But this time was different because the story we got back from Lina was so not what we expected - almost the opposite of what we created - that it felt for us like a moment of reckoning. See, Lina's description of our show is right. The INVISIBILIA way is the empathic way. But Lina - and really much of the world - seems to be losing patience with that way. In the post-#MeToo, vigilant, polarized Trump-era world, showing empathy for your so-called enemies is practically taboo.

SPIEGEL: So here we go. The invisible force under scrutiny in this episode is the one that powers a lot of INVISIBILIA stories - empathy. We're going to play you the rest of Lina's story. But first, you'll hear the one that Hanna created. Could we get you to understand where Jack came from - his version of what he saw and experienced and felt - maybe even be moved by him? And should we?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: A couple of months ago I came across this young man on YouTube.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETERSON: This is Jack Peterson. Today's date is February 26, 2018 - just clarifying my position on a couple things. So hopefully this goes well.

ROSIN: And he had put together a most unusual PowerPoint presentation to showcase his credentials as a certifiable loser...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETERSON: I'm unemployed and living with my mother.

ROSIN: ...So no one should be envious of him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETERSON: OK. So listen. I don't think my looks are even above a four. And I believe these images below prove that I was not physically appealing.

ROSIN: Cue close-up of his acne as vivid as the pepperoni on the day-old pizza on his bed, a photo no one in their right mind would share on any platform unless, like Jack, they were an incel - an involuntary celibate - guys who hate women and in rare cases kill them because women won't sleep with them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: When I saw this video of Jack, I couldn't help but wonder - what's driving you? Why would you tell so many stories about yourself where you are the punch line?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETERSON: She said to me, you have good hands but a bad penis. It's just so small.

ROSIN: So I went to visit him in Chicago.

Hi.

PETERSON: How's it going?

ROSIN: Good. I'm Hanna.

He's 20 now and lives in a room in his mom's house. By the way, his real name is Kalerthon Demetro. Jack is the name he uses publicly. Pretty much with whatever he talks about, he is excruciatingly self-conscious - always second-guessing himself out loud.

PETERSON: I had a "Star Wars" poster, but I took it down because I didn't want people to know that I liked "The Force Awakens"...

ROSIN: (Laughter).

PETERSON: I didn't want people to - because you're supposed to hate it.

ROSIN: When he was a kid, the boys in his school were mostly fine with him. It's stuff the girls said he remembers, like this girl in middle school once.

PETERSON: I was sitting on the bus. This girl sat next to me. She was, like, pleasant. And then all of a sudden - it's, like, insane. She says to me something like, you know, oh, you know, I knew someone who was pretty ugly once, but he could be happy, like, anyway. I was like, why are you saying this to me? (Laughter) Like, what - you know, I don't care anymore. Like - but it's - the thing is there's a million little things like that that happened to me. There was like - it wasn't so much that they were rejecting me, like, romantically. It's just that they were rejecting me as even a human being.

ROSIN: So almost as soon as he could type, Jack started escaping to chat rooms online. And in one chat room, he met M, who had become his girlfriend. We're going to use just her initial to protect her privacy. She was 17, and he was 12, although he lied to her about his age. What they had in common was other kids being casually mean to them.

PETERSON: The thing is she just showed me compassion and respect that I didn't get from anybody else.

ROSIN: At first, they chatted online for hours and then graduated to talking on the phone every night. But then M started college. And Jack became fixated on the idea that she was flirting and possibly sleeping with other guys. So one day, he figured out her passwords.

PETERSON: She would hide everything from me because she knew that if I found out about this stuff, I would be calling her a million times and saying, like, oh, I'm going to shoot myself or whatever. So she hid it from me, but I found out somehow. And so I had her nude photos. And I sent them to her parents, everybody in her family and to her college professors and everybody that she knew. I sent her nude pictures. Again, I'm 14 when I did this, so I wouldn't do this now. But...

ROSIN: Fourteen, 40, 73 - this is abusive behavior at any age. You can only admit this kind of thing to fellow incels. They won't see it the way the rest of the world does. But here's something you can't admit to them - that this same girl had brought you the best memories of your life, which in Jack and M's case, happened one evening when they had reconnected. He was 16 now. And they were at a Five Guys as the sun was going down, sitting together in a booth.

PETERSON: I was, like, looking around. And I was like, OK. I'm with my girlfriend and her friend, and it was just nice. I don't know. It just felt good to feel like I was with this person who cared about me. I cared about her. It was just pleasant. That kind of a feeling of peace is something that I probably miss because the thing is I haven't had a - like, a peaceful moment in a long time. There's like a war going on in my head between hope and lack of hope and that kind of stuff. And so I definitely would like to go back to that feeling of just peace and, like, everything's good. And that was - that's something I think about.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: It didn't last. They went hot and cold and cold until that fall. He flew back to where she lived, uninvited. And they were driving around and arguing when things escalated.

PETERSON: Long story short, she - we pull into a parking lot. She starts strangling me, which was only possible because she was like - she's pretty big; just for context.

ROSIN: Jack ended up outside the car, banging on a store window in his briefs. M had made him strip down in case he had a weapon. Then the police picked him up. And the whole incident was such a colossal catastrophe that the relationship was finally over. Jack flew home. Alone and miserable, he eventually landed on the incel forums.

PETERSON: So I posted this long thing about how, like, you know, one of the only girls that I ever really felt a connection with is, you know, f***ing some guy. I was just saying, like, I wanted to kill myself or what - I don't even know what I was - I was just, like, venting all this s***.

ROSIN: And what he gets back from the commenters on the forum...

PETERSON: Shut the f*** up you fakecel (ph). Like, oh, well, if you had any experience, then you can get another one eventually. Like, shut the f*** up. Like, just go to the club, man. And you'll get laid.

ROSIN: Abuse and abuse and more abuse, and he likes it. Incels hate empathy, sympathy, comfort of any kind - too feminine. So this was exactly what he needed. He felt seen.

Can I look at incels.me with you for a moment?

PETERSON: Yeah, yeah.

ROSIN: I just want to look at it.

PETERSON: OK. So here's a post. It's titled Femoids (ph) Should F****** Die. Femoids is - that's, like, a strange term for women. The post says, I hope they all go terminal and f****** die - abhorrent creatures. I have more respect for prostitutes because at least they embrace their degeneracy and don't hide it. Every woman is a whore (laughter). So that's one post.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIRK HELLIE'S "LURCH")

ROSIN: It would be hard to say who they hate more - women or themselves. The theory that seems to give them the most comfort is that they're part of this biological class of people who will always be the reject mutants of the earth. And a lot of the ways they talk about it are physical.

PETERSON: What might cause a recessed jaw? Your lack of testosterone. You were born this way. And you're just - you're f***ed forever. And then they'll post a picture. And they just look like a normal guy (laughter). So...

ROSIN: Which, by the way, Jack does - he's long past his acne days. And now he just looks like a stock photo IT guy - no way he's a four.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIRK HELLIE'S "LURCH")

ROSIN: And then something happened. A Canadian man drove his rental van into a bunch of pedestrians and killed 10 of them, mostly women. And he posted on his Facebook page, the incel rebellion has already begun. And suddenly, everyone was desperate to find out, what is an incel? And Jack was one of the few incels out there giving out his contact info. So Canadian TV called him and asked him, would he come on TV and explain? And so he did. Here he is on Canada's Global News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GLOBAL NEWS")

PETERSON: It's more of a support group for men who struggle with women, who struggle in the dating scene, who have trouble having sex.

ROSIN: So what this meant practically for Jack day to day is that he was suddenly spending hours away from his computer driving to TV studios. And he started noticing this surprising thing.

PETERSON: But what, really, I noticed was that everybody I met, you know, at every studio, almost every journalist I met was just super nice and welcoming and, like, just, you know, genuinely kind to me when they really didn't have to be. They could have just treated me badly because I was part of this negative thing.

ROSIN: And then one particular thing really hits him.

PETERSON: The most positive, like, interactions I've had by far have been with women.

ROSIN: Women - TV hosts, reporters like me; just regular, everyday femoids doing regular, everyday femoid stuff.

PETERSON: So that exposure to kindness of people in these positions of power and status made me feel like maybe the game isn't rigged in the way I thought it was. Maybe if I - you know, if there's s*** that I want to do, it's - maybe it's not impossible. Maybe all it really takes is just to work hard and just be a nice person like all of these people are.

ROSIN: It was admittedly a teeny, tiny thing. Like, I'm sure these women were just doing their jobs - getting him a glass of water or whatever. But sometimes, when you lock yourself up day after day in an airless room of a story where you're a mutant and everyone hates you, then even a teeny, tiny reality check is enough to bring you back. And so the more Jack shuttled back and forth between TV studios and his computer screen at home, the more the life in his room seemed fake. So Jack flipped.

PETERSON: I just felt like I can't, you know, talk to these women one minute and have this friendly conversation and then the next go on a website, where - even if it's a joke - where people are talking about, like, you know, shooting women in the street.

ROSIN: He asked the administrators of the incel site to block his account.

PETERSON: I think I'm done with this right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: Oh, can I see your profile?

PETERSON: What are you looking...

ROSIN: Your profile - can I just see it?

PETERSON: Tinder.

ROSIN: No. You don't want me to.

PETERSON: Oh, I didn't know what you meant.

ROSIN: Yeah. I just want to see what it looks like. I just want to see how you come off.

Jack spruced up an old Tinder profile, switched up his picture from him in his room to him in front of a VIP sign at an event with Jordan Peterson, who's a celebrity in the men's rights world.

PETERSON: Because it makes me look, like, high status even though it's not - even though anybody could get a picture like that. But it - anyway, it made me look like I was somebody. He updated the bio.

ROSIN: What does it say?

PETERSON: I'm an activist with a passion for filmmaking.

ROSIN: And it worked - girl swiped. One asked if he wanted to come over that night - a booty call. But he couldn't handle that. So he asked her if she would go to dinner, like a real date, just to prove to himself that he could do it.

PETERSON: I was a little nervous since I hadn't really done that before. Just - she just walked in. And I don't even know what she said exactly, but just the way she looked at me I knew that I was - that it was fine. I knew she thought I was normal. I was so happy.

ROSIN: That look was all the confirmation Jack needed.

PETERSON: Maybe I can get my life going and try to do, you know, whatever it is that I set out to do. And I can actually try these things. And maybe there's some hope there. So...

ROSIN: What does hope feel like? What does that word mean to you? What does it look like in you?

PETERSON: It feels like I can see further out. Like, for years, I just felt like it doesn't matter what I do because I'm going to be dead in a couple of years anyway. But the hope was, like, I could see potential futures for myself that didn't involve, like, you know, like, a gun in my mouth. Like, there was more. There were possibilities that I maybe didn't recognize before.

ROSIN: Letting go of the idea that the world might end in a few years...

PETERSON: Yeah.

ROSIN: ...Is scary because it means you have to try. And you could fail. Like, that's very scary.

PETERSON: Yeah, exactly. It's - because - yeah - now there's, like, stakes to what I do because if I fail, then I'm not just going to jump off a building. I'm going to have to face it and, like, see how to work from that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MISITZIS: I think the first version of this story is the version that Jack believes but that version is a lie.

SPIEGEL: After the break, a completely different take on Jack.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: Welcome back to INVISIBILIA. You're about to hear Jack Peterson's story, take two - same central character and the facts haven't changed. But there's a critical difference in the way that empathy is used. Here's Lina Misitzis, continuing her Jack story, which you heard at the top.

MISITZIS: I want to play you a little bit of Jack's story again, about flying to his girlfriend's place to win her back. Jack believes that he arrived there a Romeo and left a martyr. Listen carefully to the subtle ways he makes himself into the good guy.

PETERSON: Just flew down there, like, middle of the night - I just showed up where I thought she was staying. But she wasn't there. So I started calling her. And I'm like, look. I'm here. Like, I really want to fix this. I wasn't trying to do anything cray (ph) - I just wanted to talk to her 'cause she wasn't talking to me.

So - she picked me up, and we were driving around for a while. And then we pull into a parking lot. I was half-naked. I was just in my boxers because she told me to strip down in case I had, like, a weapon or something. She starts strangling me, which was only possible 'cause she was like - she was pretty big (laughter). Like, eventually the cops pull up behind us. I didn't want to f*** her life up - 'cause I could have. You know, it wouldn't have been that difficult. So I just made some s*** up about I was suicidal, and then I stayed in a mental hospital for a couple days.

MISITZIS: But Jack's version is a lie. First, what Jack did was a massive violation of M's privacy. She didn't want to speak to him, and so he crossed state lines to force her to.

PETERSON: 'Cause she wasn't talking to me.

MISITZIS: What Jack did to M could have easily turned violent, and so she checked to see if he was carrying a knife or a gun.

PETERSON: 'Cause she told me to strip down in case I had, like, a weapon or something.

MISITZIS: And what Jack did to M was wrong. So when the cops came, he kind of had to assume guilt.

PETERSON: I didn't want to f*** her life up - 'cause I could have, you know? It wouldn't have been that difficult.

MISITZIS: Jack's been in the news a lot recently for leaving an online community who self-identify as incels - that is, involuntary celibates. Incels have a bad reputation. Most of them blame women for not f***ing them, the great paradox being that they also blame themselves for not being f***able

Many of them are proponents of retaliation by violence, and some of them follow through. The most famous example is Elliot Rodger, a 22-year-old who murdered six people in California in 2014. Elliot left behind a 141-page manifesto outlining his ideology, his plan for what he called Retribution Day.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

ELLIOT RODGER: If I can't have you, girls, I will destroy you (laughter).

MISITZIS: Not all incels are murderers, but some are. And all incels do have in common the belief in a broken promise that they were owed women and, for reasons beyond their control, they're deprived of them.

Jack claims to have woken up one morning with a change of heart, and then he put up a video on his YouTube channel announcing his departure.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

PETERSON: Yeah. So I have decided to leave incels, kind of move forward with my life.

MISITZIS: I've watched every interview I can find from Jack Peterson's atonement tour. And they all have in common a few glaring omissions. For one, he seems much more interested in the media's perception of him than he is in his own perception of himself.

PETERSON: When I was doing all this media stuff, I felt like I was finally getting to talk about what happened to me. And I was finally getting some kind of earned recognition after so many years of s*** that I've had to deal with.

MISITZIS: When Jack talks about leaving incels, there's a noticeable absence of reflection. He knows he felt ignored by women growing up, a lot of which he blames on adolescent acne. He acknowledges that now he isn't ignored by women, a lot of which he attributes to no longer having acne. And he exhibits no awareness of his ex-girlfriend's experience in any of this.

PETERSON: She's dealt with bullying and stuff before...

MISITZIS: In fact, this is the closest he gets.

PETERSON: ...Because she was, you know, fat - kind of a similar thing, obviously less extreme, than what I dealt with.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MISITZIS: I don't have the voice of Jack's ex, but I do have a whole choir of women's voices in my address book. And after just a few phone calls, I start feeling like their experiences are all interchangeable. One in particular stands out. She's a writer in California. I'll call her J. For many years, J dated someone volatile and abusive.

J: I mean, it was a lot of sexual assault, verbal assault, the whole nine yards.

MISITZIS: J's ex sounds a lot like Jack. And her story about him sounds so similar to the one that Jack tells, I'm going to just play the two beside each other. And by the way, we did get this verified.

PETERSON: I actually broke up with her because she was just, like, bitchy all the time.

M: There was one day where he called me probably 40 or 50 times while I was at work.

PETERSON: Then a couple of days later, I was like, look. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have tried to break up with you. But she just wasn't listening, and she wasn't answering my calls.

M: He called 50 times and was threatening to hurt himself - which he had done before.

PETERSON: I would say like, I'm going to f***ing jump off the building tomorrow if you don't stay with me.

M: So eventually, I did pick up. And he said, I know you're dating someone. I know you're seeing someone. You don't understand. You can't do this. I'm coming now.

PETERSON: Like middle of the night, I just showed up where I thought she was staying.

M: I told him not to come - over and over and over. And that night, he showed up at my house. I was scared. I don't want to make him mad. I am going to let him inside. At this point, I still cared enough about him that I was afraid he was going to hurt himself if I didn't do something. So I let him in. And I let him spend the night.

I don't want to get yelled at. I don't want to get hurt. And I also don't want to sell out the progress I've been trying to make, so I just sat there while he just cried for a long time. And I asked him to leave. He wouldn't leave. He just kept crying.

PETERSON: She picked me up, and we were driving around for a while. And then we pulled into a parking lot.

M: He pressured me into having - not sex, but something akin to it.

MISITZIS: And this is where J's story diverges from M's. Instead of challenging her ex, she submits to him.

M: I just sort of dealt with it by doing and saying as little as possible.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MISITZIS: The thing is, submission is easiest. Women have been taught - in some ways implicit and in other ways overt - that an effective way to survive something is by just letting it happen. Survival rate is higher for those who don't react, and the same goes for fitting in, being liked. But something that Jack told Hanna about his ex helps explain why she fought back, and why she's probably not crazy at all.

About a year before his trip, Jack found out that M was seeing another man. They were broken up at this point, but still, he was furious. And so he retaliated.

PETERSON: I had her nude photos, and I sent them to her parents, everybody in her family, her college professors and everybody she knew - I sent her nude pictures. She was in therapy for a long time after that.

MISITZIS: As a reminder, here's what Jack said about his and M's history with bullying.

PETERSON: She's dealt with bullying and stuff before because she was, you know, fat - kind of a similar thing - obviously, less extreme than what I dealt with.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MISITZIS: I'm usually one of those people-are-mostly-the-same types - someone who tries to find overlap in just about everything - but this feels different. I think it's because this week feels different. This week, despite multiple allegations of sexual assault and despite a clear unwillingness to entertain the possibility that he might have anything to answer for, Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The day before Kavanaugh was sworn in, thousands of protesters gathered outside the U.S. Capitol hoping to convince a few key senators to vote no on his confirmation. And one of them, a man, was filmed explaining why he showed up to protest that day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: We all look at Kavanaugh, and we see some similarities to things that happened in our lives. At some point, you know, a woman said no, and you tried to pressure her into doing something because this was normal activity for us as men. And that's where manhood begins is when we take accountability for our own faults. And so that's why I'm out here.

MISITZIS: If Jack had said anything that even vaguely mirrored these words, his 15 minutes of fame might actually matter - but he didn't, and they don't.

PETERSON: It feels like I died on that day, and everything since has been this weird purgatory nightmare.

MISITZIS: Jack didn't die that day. In fact, he was reborn out of the ashes of a fabricated narrative that he and so many men like him have been fed over and over. And the cycle continues.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: I listened to Lina's story on my way into work one day. I rode the elevator up and down - six to lobby, lobby to six - feeling embarrassed, and annoyed, and called out, and taking it all very personally and thinking, Hanna, you're an idiot. Hanna, are you an idiot?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: After the break, find out if I'm an idiot.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: So I called Lina into the studio to hash it out. Did Jack deserve our empathy or not?

MISITZIS: Was your goal to get the listener into his head so they understand his, like, circumstances and his, like, arc? Or...

ROSIN: That is literally always my goal.

MISITZIS: That's always your goal.

ROSIN: That is always, unquestioningly, my goal. And I honestly can say that for the first time, I am questioning that as a goal. I mean, I think it's the goal of our show. And it really is the way I have always operated as a journalist.

MISITZIS: And why? Like, why should we see ourselves in him?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: Why? Where did I get this idea that my job is to get you to empathize with a guy like Jack Peterson? When I was growing up, empathy was a kind of unquestioned thing. Like, of course, it was good. It was like puppies or sunshine. Do you have the sense that was true in the, say, '60s and '70s?

FRITZ BREITHAUPT: Absolutely. That's exactly how I grew up.

ROSIN: This is Fritz - a professor at the University of Indiana who studies cognitive science.

BREITHAUPT: Fritz. Fritz Breithaupt - very German last name. I apologize.

ROSIN: (Laughter) What? You can't do a story about empathy if you have a very German-sounding last name? Jeez. Yeah.

BREITHAUPT: (Laughter) Well, Germans and empathy - that's a long chapter, of course. So...

ROSIN: I never thought of empathy as an ideology or creed, but I've since learned it was. Empathy was this obscure, psychobabble-y term up until the '60s and '70s. Social scientists and psychologists started to push it into the culture, basically, out of fear. Their idea was we were either headed for World War III or empathy. We were all going to kill each other or we were going to learn to see the world through each other's eyes.

BREITHAUPT: And that was always the idea that had the Germans had more empathy in the 1930s, Hitler would not have happened. The genocide would not have happened. Empathy was kind of seen as the hope against all of these kind of things.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: In my elementary school in the '70s, which wasn't progressive or mushy in any way, we wrote letters to pretend Russian pen pals to teach us to open our hearts to our enemies; and not just enemies - also people who were suffering. Some civil rights activists were really big on empathy. People with power and privilege were supposed to open their hearts to the realities of people without power, not from the safe, noblesse oblige distance of pity but from the inside. That's what I learned about how you make the world better. Encounter a person you're unfamiliar with or afraid of or even repulsed by. Don't duck. Move closer. Figure out what they're all about.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: So when did you notice a skepticism about empathy start to creep in?

BREITHAUPT: What I noticed was, indeed, it happened in classrooms. It was students.

ROSIN: Starting 10 or 15 years ago, students just stopped buying the automatic logic of empathy. Like, why should they put themselves in the shoes of someone who is not them, much less someone they thought was harmful?

There've been surveys given to cross sections of high school and college students starting in the late '60s. They've been recording reactions to the same set of questions and statements for decades - statements like, I try to look at everybody's side of a disagreement before I make a decision. I sometimes find it difficult to see things from the other guy's point of view. I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.

And starting around 2000, the line starts to dip for all dimensions of empathy - either just understanding someone's position, which is called perspective taking, and empathic concern, the one about tender feelings. More students start saying it's not their problem to help people in trouble, not their job to see the world from someone else's perspective.

By 2009, the average young person measures 40 percent less empathetic than my generation. A 40 percent drop - that is a lot. Do they just not believe in empathy anymore? What's wrong with trying to feel what Jack feels?

So if I create a version of a story which overly identifies and asks the listener to empathize with Jack Peterson, what are the possible consequences? Like, what does that do or put out in the world that's a problem?

MISITZIS: The women who I believe he has abused become the villains. And if you don't get it right and you're inviting your listeners to empathize with someone whose logic is not just so offensive but it's literally flawed, I just think you're creating more turmoil.

ROSIN: For society.

MISITZIS: Right. Like, the point of empathy is that it's bringing us together. And in that instance, I think it, like, further pushes us apart.

ROSIN: So here's what I missed. In Lina's view, there's a cost to empathy. Empathy is not an infinite resource. And it's not free because it saps your strength for the fight. So if you boost one side, you'll make the other side weaker. And that is especially a problem when the side you're boosting is the side with power. There's actually a term for this invented by philosopher Kate Manne - himpathy - the tendency to empathize with men in power over vulnerable women.

Lina told me a story of how she was listening to an NPR interview with a white nationalist named Jason Kessler who was the organizer of the Charlottesville rally. And as Lina was listening, she started to enter into Kessler's thoughts, understand his position. And when she caught herself doing it, she just slumped to the kitchen floor.

MISITZIS: And I feel like, in that moment, I lost a little bit of my conviction. Like, in that moment, I was hearing this person being given the room to allow us into his brain - like, in this moment we were being, like, welcomed into this person's brain. And it was f***ing with my conviction in a way that I'm like, almost ashamed of.

ROSIN: And what's wrong with losing your conviction?

MISITZIS: I mean, in that instance, it puts other at-risk populations further at risk.

ROSIN: Because if you do lose your conviction, you might not have the energy to march in the streets or get better laws to protect women from dangerous exes.

So the new rule is reserve it - not for your, quote, unquote, "enemies" but for the people you believe are hurt or you have decided need it the most - for the victims, for your own damn team. That's how you make things better.

So Lina identifies with Jack's ex and with J and with Christine Blasey Ford. But here's what worries me. In that way of thinking, where the Linas stop listening and trying to understand the perspectives of the Jacks, the Jacks also stop listening to the Linas and identify only with their fellow incels, which is a problem because here is the dirty secret about empathy. Researchers who study empathy have noticed that when there's a standoff - could be the Super Bowl, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Kavanaugh hearings - it is really hard to empathize with the enemy. But that doesn't mean that empathy is absent from the scene. People are feeling strong empathy, but it's selective - only for their own team.

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ROSIN: I see. So we used to say - like, back in the idealistic age about empathy, like, you would have a war break out. And you would say, oh, the problem here is that there's not enough empathy. And the way we're seeing it now is - oh, the problem here is an excess of empathy. There's too much empathy with your side.

BREITHAUPT: Yes, exactly. At least - exactly. Some terrorists - where I would say it's not an absence - complete absence of empathy that draws them in but rather it's an excess of empathy. They feel the pity. They feel the suffering of their people.

ROSIN: A terrorist facing a huge powerful army draws on another powerful weapon, empathy - but only for people like her. This is why Fritz called his book "The Dark Sides Of Empathy" - because there's a point at which empathy doesn't look anything like the universal ideal we had in our heads in the '60s. It starts to look more like tribalism, a way to reinforce your own point of view and keep blocking out all the others.

In my generation, we thought of empathy as the big, warm sun lighting the path to peace for us all. Now it operates like a torch. You shine it on your friends and use it to burn your enemies.

How long do you want to keep this up, this putting people outside the bounds of empathy? Like, how long do you want to do that because eventually - what? Like, what's the endgame of excluding some people from the possibility of empathy? Like, where do you end up?

BREITHAUPT: Basically, you give up on civil society at that point. You give up on democracy because if you feed into this division more and you let it happen, it will become so strong that it becomes dangerous.

ROSIN: So the sun version of empathy was a delusion, some idealistic '60s nonsense that fundamentally misunderstood how the force actually works. And the torch version leads to the death of everything.

So why aren't you one of these people who say, I'm against empathy? Say, the concept is so tainted - like, we've learned so much about it and how it works and how corrupting it can be that it's just not a useful concept anymore.

BREITHAUPT: I think that empathy still, overall, is the key to all humanity. Without empathy, we would be just alone. I mean, throwing that out would be - well, cutting out 90 percent of what our life is all about.

ROSIN: Empathy in its elemental, basic form - one person looking another in the eye and really seeing them - however we use it - for someone we love or hate, for someone in trouble or someone who's driving us crazy, it's the substance that keeps us from spinning out into loneliness - the worst way of being, except for all the others - or maybe not.

Should I call Jack? Do you not - you don't want to hear him?

MISITZIS: Oh, I would love for you to call Jack.

ROSIN: All right. Let's try it. I'll see if he's there.

Lina, Jack.

MISITZIS: Hi, Jack.

PETERSON: Hey.

MISITZIS: How's it going?

PETERSON: It's good.

MISITZIS: Sorry to catch you off guard, buddy.

PETERSON: It's OK.

ROSIN: Lina and I called Jack on a whim as a final way to resolve our differences - see if he was, in fact, a person who deserved my brand of universal empathy - you know, like a last ditch effort to save democracy and civil society and all that. Or should he fall into Lina's more selective, no-empathy-for-the-enemy camp? I like that Lina called him buddy. I mean, it was a little patronizing. But I decided to view it as friendly - maybe a sign that she was open to hearing him. But then pretty immediately, she started grilling him.

MISITZIS: And so I hear you use the word respect a lot.

PETERSON: I mean, here's the thing is that I've always considered myself to be a respectful person - (inaudible) type of person who disrespects people in the first place. So...

MISITZIS: Except for that you did send out naked pictures of your ex. And you also showed up at her house uninvited after she wouldn't pick up the phone for you after she broke up with you.

PETERSON: Like, I would not do that to some random person. I mean, also, that's - you know, a story like that...

ROSIN: This was not looking good for me. Jack was still making a lot of excuses, showing himself not to be the good reformed incel I had portrayed him to be. But then Lina tried something interesting - an empathy test.

MISITZIS: So I've heard the story of that night when you showed up from your perspective.

PETERSON: Right.

MISITZIS: I'm wondering if you can try just telling me that same story from her perspective. Like, what was it like for her that night when you showed up?

PETERSON: So from her perspective, it's - she doesn't want anything to do with me anymore. Now this psycho's near my house or whatever. And he's - what is he going to do? What - is he going to shoot me? You know, that's probably what - I'm just being honest with you. That's probably what she thought. I mean - that's what - and meanwhile, in my head, I'm thinking, this is perfect because once she sees me again, she'll realize that I'm not a bad guy. And she'll - you know, she'll remember all the good memories we had together.

ROSIN: Lina and I looked at each other in the studio. She seemed a little surprised. Jack had actually done a decent job of imagining how his tortured girlfriend was feeling. And for a moment, I felt like maybe I was right. But Jack himself put an end to my feeling of triumph.

PETERSON: But I think the actual story is the change that happened for me this year was not just that - oh, I was a sexist, toxic asshole, and now I've seen the error of my ways. I mean, that is kind of a scam. It's not really true. The actual truth is this - is that it's not really a redemption story for me. I mean, it's more - all I'm thinking about - what can I do to make my life not horrible?

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ROSIN: I hadn't expected this. Jack was letting me know that I had been so eager to build a bridge, to get to the we-are-all-one place that I'd missed a few things - like, fundamentally misread the person I was supposed to be empathizing with. I went right past Jack, the actual person, to Jack, the idea in my head - Mr. Reformed Incel.

I started to feel like I'd made the wrong choice, whereas Lina, in this moment, went in the opposite direction. She moved past Jack, the generic enemy incel, to Jack, the fellow human - a 20-year-old living in his mom's house and trying to make it through the day.

Right. So your feeling after talking to him is like - you can empathize with him as an individual who doesn't stand for a larger thing - almost.

MISITZIS: Yeah, yeah.

ROSIN: He's, just, like a kid who's trying to not be miserable.

MISITZIS: And as it, like - and honest - and like, as a kid who had acne and took Accutane herself in high school, like, it sucked. It sucks.

ROSIN: Empathy in its elemental basic form - three humans in a room caring enough to try and figure each other out - or rather, two femoids and one buddy together in a room - because let's be honest, emotional labor is generally femoid work. Lina changed my mind a little. I don't really think I changed hers all that much - although at least we were looking at the same Jack now - a pimple-sized spot of agreement.

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SPIEGEL: That's Hanna Rosin. Stick around for a preview of the new season of Rough Translation.

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SPIEGEL: On the new season of Rough Translation...

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GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Think of a time that you decided something had to change.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I was like...

WARNER: How did you feel?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...Having my heart squeezing and my brain totally freezing for some seconds.

WARNER: Justified?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Better it be over an issue like the survival of the planet.

WARNER: Empowered?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Am I supposed to punch her?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah. Yeah.

WARNER: What did you do next?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Through interpreter) In my opinion, the best revenge against ISIS is to be humane.

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WARNER: I'm Gregory Warner, international correspondent for NPR. We're back with a new season of Rough Translation, the show that travels far way to bring you stories that hit close to home.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

WARNER: And this time, we are following people who break the rules...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Through interpreter) Sir, I have been moving bodies for six months.

WARNER: ...What they say about the world...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Through translator) And you didn't even know we were there.

WARNER: ...And what they say about us.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: What I am doing right now, why I am rejecting all the appreciation...

WARNER: Rough Translation, starting Wednesday. Subscribe.

SPIEGEL: After our credits, we chat with Greg Warner about what else to look forward to in their coming season.

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ROSIN: INVISIBILIA is hosted by me, Hanna Rosin.

SPIEGEL: And me, Alix Spiegel. Our show is edited by Anne Gudenkauf. Our executive producer is Cara Tallo. This episode was produced by B.A. Parker. INVISIBILIA is produced by Yowei Shaw and Abby Wendle. Our project manager is Liana Simstrom.

ROSIN: We had help from Jake Arlow, Julie Carli, David Guthertz, Taylor Haney, Leena Sanzgiri and Liza Yeager. By the way, Lina Misitzis, she's working at This American Life now.

This episode was partly inspired by talk we heard at Third Coast Audio Festival by Chenjerai Kumanyika and Sandhya Dirks. We also owe a debt to Susan Lanzoni and Sara Conrah (ph).

SPIEGEL: Fact-checking by Brin Winterbottom and Rachel Brown (ph). Our technical director is Andy Huether. And our vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann.

ROSIN: Special thanks to Mark Memmott, Michael Ratner (ph), Emily Bogle, Michael May, Jeff Pierre, David Plotz, Niki Walker, Rhaina Cohen, Thomas Lu, Chloee Weiner, Sylvie Douglis, Ryan Deaver, Neva Grant, Alvin Malaith (ph), Nick Fountain, Samir Rao (ph), Dave Blanchard and Sophie Rudenay (ph).

SPIEGEL: Music for this episode is provided by Ramtin Arablouei, Connor Moore from CMoore Sound and Yung Kartz. Additional music from Blue Dot Sessions.

ROSIN: To see an original illustration for this episode by Christina Chung, visit npr.org/invisibilia.

Thank you to Alpha Drebo (ph) for saving us from technological purgatory so many times this year. Also, love and thanks to Lulu Miller, co-founder of INVISIBILIA. We miss you.

SPIEGEL: And now for our moment of non-Zen.

ROSIN: (Singing) And brother there but for the grace of God.

Oh, boy, this is not going to work.

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SPIEGEL: This is our last show of the season, but we're going to be back really soon. This year, we're doing a fall season. So join us then for more (whispers) INVISIBILIA. INVISIBILIA. Are you asleep yet? INVISIBILIA.

ROSIN: Stop being so creepy.

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ROSIN: I'm back with the host of Rough Translation, Gregory Warner.

WARNER: Hey, Hanna.

ROSIN: Are you excited for your new season?

WARNER: Yes, it's been a long time coming. We're very excited for it.

ROSIN: We know about a long time coming, that is exciting. So give us a sneak preview of your first episode.

WARNER: So our first episode is from Mosul, Iraq - a city we normally hear about either because of terrorists and insurgents - Mosul was under ISIS occupation for years - or about war - there's a fierce battle there. But in the wake of that war, our correspondent Jane Arraf has been hearing about this trend of Millennial-aged volunteers who are just kind of going into the city to help out...

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: To do things like clean schools and hospitals.

Well, I think the dumper is trying to get through.

I would go out on the street, and I would see the guy with the loudspeaker kind of preaching the benefits of volunteerism on the sidewalk. And what I remember him emphasizing was the fact that we can make a difference...

WARNER: Which is not so weird in the world after a major disaster like a hurricane, but in Mosul is particularly dangerous because those who step in where the government is doing nothing can be seen as insurgents.

So we profiled this one young woman. She's a 23-year-old nurse, Sorur al-Sayni (ph). And she's been going into the city and clears away the corpses of ISIS fighters which have just been sitting there for months. She sometimes has to defuse their suicide belts and then bag them so they can be sent to the morgue.

ARRAF: You don't think that's a little bit crazy?

SORUR AL-SAYNI: (Through interpreter) If I think I know how to do it, then I can do it.

ROSIN: Why has nobody cleaned up the corpses? Did the government just not get around to it? Because it's so strange.

WARNER: It's just a general neglect. I mean, literally, the city doesn't have the organization for it. But then also there's this sense that cleaning up a body is helping ISIS. So she has become accused of that. She's also, though, just breaking all these other norms, like she's...

ROSIN: Like she's a woman. Like, that's the first thing I noticed that you said, I - you don't expect - I mean, I know she's a nurse, so in some sense that's - she fits a mold but...

WARNER: Well, no. Even nursing in Iraq is seen as - not a proper profession for a middle-class woman. So she's breaking norms there. But then she's also leading this team of men. I mean, she points to a severed head and tells this guy, pick up that head. And he says, wait, no, seriously? Pick up that head? And she says, yeah, pick up that head. And he just does it.

ROSIN: Wow.

WARNER: And they wear T-shirts that say Team Sorur - her name on it.

ROSIN: Why? Like, what is it about her that has allowed her to slip into this role of, basically, bossing the men around?

WARNER: There's a chance after a war, after something as cataclysmic as an ISIS occupation, that allows for a remaking of the rules. You can almost rewrite things, especially out there in the rubble where Sorur looks around and she doesn't see the government. She just sees other young people - other teams of people helping out. So there's a sense of, well, it's our Iraq now.

ROSIN: That's actually kind of beautiful. I mean, the fact that you blow the thing up, something new can come down in its place. Anything you want to say about the rest of the season?

WARNER: Well, I mean, the theme of our season is the rebels. In every episode, we are going to meet people like Sorur who are pushing against the culture they find themselves in, whether that is French language politics or Israeli spy culture or American evangelicalism. We meet people who are saying to themselves, wait, why does it have to be this way? And then they push up against what they think are the norms, and they face those consequences.

ROSIN: Gregory Warner is the host of Rough Translation, out with its new season starting next week. Check it out. Thanks, Greg.

WARNER: Thanks, Hanna. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.