Harry, Meghan, and the Limits of Empathy

By Harlan Garbell

A few days before the wedding, she [Kate Middleton] was upset about something pertaining to … the flower girl dresses, and it made me cry, and it really hurt my feelings.
— Meghan Markle (Duchess of Sussex) to Oprah Winfrey, March 7

Money makes the world go around
It makes the world go ’round
— From the 1972 musical “Cabaret” (“Money, Money” by Kander and Ebb)

In my column last month I mentioned that I often watch cable news in the evening. I most often tune in to MSNBC, which generally reflects the interests (biases?) of liberals like myself.  Not surprisingly, considering the profile of the typical viewer, it airs a plethora of commercials asking you to support one worthy organization or another.  For example, the St. Jude Hospital for Children. Viewers will also see commercials for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, where videos of abandoned, shivering canines chained to poles are standard. There are also other organizations that advertise about the plight of polar bears, and even orphaned tiger cubs.

These are effective commercials. They are specifically scripted, designed, and edited to move the viewer from perhaps being just sympathetic, or empathetic,* toward compassionate action where you get your credit card out and dial the number on the screen or go to their website. Although people may be generally aware that they are being manipulated by skilled media and advertising professionals, these thoughts are often overcome by the powerful visual and audio messages of the commercial that aligns with their values.

As humanists, we often use the words “empathy” and compassion,” especially when discussing ways to devote time or money to support social action. Makes sense to me. Without the capacity to emotionally identify with the plight of others, it may be difficult to get sufficiently motivated to get out of your comfort zone and do something to help alleviate suffering or reverse an injustice.

However, even folks with well-developed capacities for empathy and compassion can often be conflicted on how best to exercise this innate gift, or perhaps learned skill. With so many causes and outlets competing for attention, choices have to be made. Is it reasonable to assume that even people with a high capacity for empathy have a limit as to how much of this emotional resource to spend? I think so.  I would imagine that they appreciate the need to ration their empathetic capital prudently to preserve their sanity, as well as their pocketbooks.

But not everyone is highly empathetic. Perhaps, like innate intelligence, innate empathy is distributed on a Bell Curve, and some people are more, or less, empathetic than others. This could be the result of biology or heredity. But could culture and socialization override any innate limitations on a person’s capacity for empathy?

Studies indeed indicate that empathy can be “learned.” And often one’s own experience can be the best teacher. For example, historians have theorized that, but for his being stricken by polio at the age of 39, an over-privileged FDR would never have developed the compassion to become “a traitor to his class” and lead the nation out of the Great Depression. Or consider the 19th-century slave trader John Newton, who became an abolitionist after viewing first hand the suffering he perpetrated on innocent people.

However, assuming that everyone has at least some degree of empathy (Hitler loved dogs, right?), perhaps the discussion here should be more directed not about how much empathy you may have but how you choose to direct it.

Which brings me to the drama, or perhaps soap opera, that has dominated the news and social media this past month. Some of you may have seen Oprah Winfrey’s two-hour interview with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex (Harry and Meghan) on March 7 on CBS. I didn’t. However, it is highly likely that all of you have either heard or read about it. As I’m a bit of a news junkie (OK, a major news junkie), I couldn’t avoid the ensuing kerfuffle. Although I have no dog in this royal food fight, it gives me an opportunity to explore the issue that has more than a few “talking heads” divided: in light of the disclosures that were discussed in the interview, are Harry and Meghan deserving candidates for our empathy?

They appear to be a nice, friendly young couple. They do lots of charity work, too. In fact, supporters of the British Royal Family sometimes consider many royals to be “public servants” (more on this later). And I have no reason to doubt their version of events that: 1) the Royal Family has not been overly supportive of them; 2) Meghan has to curtsy before the Queen (yes, even in private); 3) there was an arguably racist comment made about her baby (anybody surprised?); and 4) she did have a mental health crisis.

When these disclosures were made to Oprah, it’s not difficult to understand how so many could feel empathy for their very public travails. Perhaps similar to the substantial empathy provided years ago to the popular Princess Diana, Harry’s mother, who also was famously characterized as being unsupported by the Royal Family. But the question arises — are Harry and Meghan very publicly “playing the empathy card”? And, if so, to what purpose?

As many people are aware, Markle was a professional actress, clothes designer, and celebrity millionaire even before she met the prince. Today, by all accounts, the couple’s “brand” is rapidly ascending. Their worldwide network of wealthy, influential friends is perhaps unmatched (they once had 10 million followers on Instagram), and recently they have signed several highly lucrative deals, worth millions, with agencies and media companies, e.g. Spotify, Netflix. Meghan and Harry currently have a net worth of $30 million and live in a $15 million mansion in California. But does this wealth, privilege, and celebrity disqualify them from being treated empathetically?

Although previously I had been pretty much oblivious to the entire sturm und drang surrounding this event, the fallout managed to stir my skeptic gene into action. This led me to try to disassemble what may be going on. For example, in the pre-production phase, would it be fair to assume that representatives of both the royal couple and CBS met to discuss the content of this program?  Or was it agreed beforehand that it would just be a pleasant, “off the cuff” chat on a Sunday evening among friends about, let’s say, the best place to have lunch in Saint-Tropez? My bet would be that, if not scripted, the program had agreed-upon topics that were open, or even encouraged, for discussion.

These are just speculative musings, of course. But several corporate sponsors (especially pharmaceutical companies) were willing to pay huge sums for prime-time, 30-second advertisements, so the obvious hope was that the program would generate high enough ratings to justify the expenditures. I doubt that just knowing where Harry and Meghan go to lunch would cut it with the network or corporate sponsors. (As an aside, viewers in the United Kingdom, where almost all prescription drugs are provided free under the National Health Service, were reportedly aghast at the numerous commercials pitching the latest remedies for psoriasis or erectile dysfunction.)

So, with a bow to Occam’s Razor, a skeptic like me could reasonably argue that the primary purpose of this program was to serve as entertainment for large numbers of viewers for commercial gain. Many people, for whatever reason, have always been fascinated with the British Royal Family. And they watched in droves.  Simply put, the likely overall plan was to produce a promotional or financial “win-win-win” scenario for the royal couple, CBS, and Oprah. The losers? The traditional “punching bag” of the tabloid press — The House of Windsor.

By most accounts, Oprah did a great job interviewing the royal couple. Interestingly, reviews cited her capacity for empathy as the catalyst for getting out the most “explosive” details of Harry and Meghan’s allegedly shabby treatment from the tabloids and certain unnamed Royal Family members. Were these details, in fact, the real deliverables that were expected by corporate sponsors to induce millions of people to tune in? I suspect so. But, then again, I’ve never been accused of residing at the high end of the empathy spectrum.

Are Harry and Meghan the victims in this drama? Or is it the Royal Family that is being unjustly vilified without being offered an opportunity for rebuttal? You be the judge. However, as to whether Harry and Meghan are worthy of a large dollop of public empathy, I am going to draw your attention to a subsequent interview that you might have missed for the possible answer.

On the Tuesday after the program, former First Lady Michelle Obama was asked about her reaction to Oprah’s “tell-all” interview. Politically savvy, Obama responded that the most important thing is that families find a way to heal. Who could argue with that? But she also pointedly added that although she understood the stresses involved with being in the public spotlight, “public service is not about us… it’s about the people we serve.”


* “While these words are close cousins, they are not synonymous. Sympathy means you can understand what the person is feeling. Empathy means that you feel what a person is feeling. Compassion is the willingness to relieve the suffering of another.” — Chopra.com

Harlan Garbell is president of HumanistsMN.


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