Can empathy be empty?

In a time when everything that we eat, wear, do, and think is immediately and publicly documented, how people chose to engage with charities and causes has sometimes become subject to criticism. I remember hearing the phrase “armchair activism” directed at people (mostly millenials) who were dumping water on themselves in the name of ALS. The idea was that these people were just doing the challenge for attention and not because they cared about the disease.

It was easy to believe this was true- I did. But then the numbers started rolling in- over $100 million dollars raised for the ALS Foundation. Clearly in this case, raising awareness directly led to action. But it didn’t stop me from thinking- when does “raising awareness” become just empty words?


I got thinking about it again early last month when Gwyneth Paltrow tried the SNAP challenge. Probably most people would say “tried the challenge” is too generous a phrase…she barely made it four days before tapping out, a far cry from the hungry reality experienced by people living in poverty. Her execution also was mercilessly mocked- “who needs SEVEN LIMES?”

Image via Twitter

The media was ruthless:

Gwyneth Paltrow Tries To Live On A $29 Food Stamp Budget For A Week, Fails -The Huffington Post

Seven Limes Was Probably Overkill, And Other Lessons From Gwyneth’s Failed Food Stamp Challenge -Think Progress

Gwyneth Paltrow’s food stamp challenge is the most Gwyneth Paltrow thing ever -The Washington Post

Much of this criticism is beyond fair; her inability to last even a week under circumstances many endure for months or years, her ridiculous produce choices, and simply the fact that a shallow, short term exercise fails to fully replicate a complex and often prolonged reality. Yet I found myself feeling a little put out. I tend to view any engagement, even imperfect engagement, as superior to indifference. And what better way to find empathy for those living in almost unimaginable contrast to your own privilege than by attempting to put yourself in their shoes?

Amy Woolard, an author at Slate, put it this way: “The point is not to offer an authentic experience, but to plant a seed of personal connection between serious issues (food insecurity, homelessness) and those whose wealth, power, and resources shield them from those issues. That personal connection can grow into advocacy, donations, or even simply a powerful (and free) marketing tool from the media it generates—resources that most nonprofits are perpetually hungry for.”

I think it is easy to laugh at Gwyneth Paltrow (seriously, the lime jokes are ripe for the picking), but much harder to remember that if our situation were compared to someone else, WE may be Gwyneth. It’s also important to remember that Gwyneth didn’t just try (and fail) her SNAP challenge. She also donated to the NYC Food Bank. And like the quote above says- isn’t that really what these challenges are trying to do? Just participating for the sake of getting likes or shares is not true empathy. But if it creates a feeling of common interest and understanding for those whose lives are harder than ours, and especially if that empathy is strong enough to move someone to give their money or their time, than it is not just empty words. It becomes steps toward change.

To encouraging robust empathy,
Sarah Grainger
Blog Contributor


No guilt trips, no sad stories. Just a chance to do something good.