I have this friend, Dania, who loves Louis C.K. and his acerbic wit. Every now and then Dania sends me a video of Louis ranting about this or that – about parenting, about people in the street, about the things that comics talk about – casting light into the shadowy corners of our lives. So now, I’m a fan of him, too – and I take those moments to listen to what he says when his stuff appears in my world.

In my cup of coffee in one hand, device in another “internetting” time this morning, I saw a series of images from one of Louis’ appearances on Conan. I then watched the video from the segment – and I thought about how I can use this (slightly crass) perspective to be a better teacher.

Is device usage affecting how we learn to empathize with our peers? Do the connections we have via our devices provide a false sense of connection with each other? Is cyberbullying an epidemic – or is it just a crappy replacement for a developmentally normal process? What other developmentally normal processes are being replaced by inadequate technological alternatives?

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I sent some friends the YouTube link which shows the five minute segment from where the above photos are drawn. (Note – some of the language may not be your cup of tea – but the old baby/bathwater idiom applies). And we talked about the role of teachers in making space for empathy development.

Louis thinks that, developmentally, kids need to be mean – to test it out to see how it affects others. They’ll look at someone, call them a name, and see how that person responds physically. After enough trials – kids realize that this behaviour elicits a negative response… and they stop doing it with such frequency. (I recognize that Louis C.K. is not a developmental psychologist – but I don’t know if he’s far off here).

Louis then supposes that when kids type the same insult into a device – and beam it through the airwaves into some other kid’s eyes… the sender doesn’t get to experience the recipient’s physical response. The mean kid doesn’t get to see that he or she is being a jerk – and, because of not knowing he or she is being a jerk, it lets them get a mini “win” – and they keep doing it. Cyberbullying is a much bigger issue than old-fashioned bullying was in my day because we could see the bullies coming a mile away… now – it can be everywhere – from everyone. And we don’t have a truly viable means of showing that person how we feel at impact.

largeOne of my favourite topics of study is eighteenth century British history (I’m super fun at parties, I promise). At the tail end of this period is the very famous 1798 Battle of the Nile, and it’s most notable event – the Destruction of the French Ship L’Orient. There was such an intense explosion when a fire spread to the ammunition holds of the ship that the shockwaves ripped nearby boats apart, and the previously-intense fighting stopped for ten minutes. Some crews were repairing their ships – others were shocked at the devastation from the immense loss of life at one fell swoop. The likes of such a catastrophe had never been seen before. There was a rush of empathy in response to the unimaginable in those ten minutes. It didn’t end the fighting – but it showed up in nearly every journal and logbook from the fight. Feeling the loss, first hand, changes people.

Jenn, my wife, reminded me of a BBC Documentary The Human Face with John Cleese. In this mini-series, there is a segment on road rage vs. walking rage… and how the latter isn’t really a thing. When driving in our cars – if someone cuts us off or does something else we perceive as a disgusting abuse of our rights… some of us, myself included, get upset. We don’t see the person, we don’t know them, and we don’t have any immediate “I need them to know that bothered me mechanism” other than to lay on the horn or to perhaps throw up a middle finger. But when walking down a sidewalk… if we collide with someone else… almost immediately we look up and “oh sorry” comes flying out of our mouths – and we go about our days.

I’ve told a few and heard many stories of road rage… I have yet to hear how a friend passive-aggressively walked intentionally slow to prevent someone from making the pedestrian cross signal.

Another story that I was reminded of was when a good friend did a bonehead thing and broke up with his longtime girlfriend from halfway across the continent… calling her from a pay phone, no less. Unfortunately, people break up… and with many years more history than this couple had… but the way he broke up with her remains as an assault on common decency. I mean, if you’re going to ruin someone’s day, week, month, or year – at least do it in person. A payphone? Come on, dude!

Internet Shaming is another area of life where empathy is steamrolled. We just want to join in on the rally to criticize someone for stepping out of line – however small a step that is. Remember the Justine Sacco tweet that ruined her life?  A young woman with 170 twitter followers posted a terrible joke on her timeline while en route to Africa: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” In poor taste? Sure. So bad that her life needed to be ruined? Not at all.

While she was on the plane, cut off from the internet, the tweet was re-tweeted tens of thousands of times – and many more messages poured in to her account condemning this woman. By the time she landed, she had lost her job and her name was mud. We all jumped in joy for doing our part to end racism (it’s gone now, right?). A week later, her life was in shambles and the rest of twitterdom was on the next trending topic (likely something from Jimmy Fallon – he’s so zany).

We need opportunities to be in physical proximity with others… we need to know how what we say and do affects others. It helps us to become better people. It helps us to understand who we want to be. Did my buddy need to break up with her? Yes – could he have done it another way? Definitely. Did Sacco’s toque need a twisting? Yeah. Could we have done it another way? Definitely. Person to person contact matters.

So I’m conflicted – I love devices and technology. I love using learning apps in class, I love giving students the opportunity to connect with the world via online sources and applications. But I think we need to make sure that the personal development piece is covered before the tech piece is introduced. As a middle years educator – some days I throw out the curriculum and focus on the social-emotional needs of my students… because I put those needs ahead of being able to tell me the date of the Battle of the Nile. (Some know, others just scrolled up to look, others don’t care… because the date isn’t what matters… is it?)