I made an off-the-cuff comment on Nicola's blog yesterday. It read something to the effect of how many people dislike the Information Age and I believe it's because such knowledge encourages empathy, something a lot of people are uncomfortable with.
I happened back there today and noticed it and realized how serious a statement it is.
I think this is rooted deeply in our natural urge to deny mortality. Delving deep into the heart of dying man forces you to internalize it. You have to admit you're no better, no worse, and as likely to die.
Writers strive for empathy all day long. I'd say it's the most important quality a writer can possess. People can learn to write at the age of 80, but empathy is learned to whatever degree we will possess it for a lifetime by a very young age - I've heard around three or four.
The opposite end of the spectrum is narcissism, in which people can only relate to the world filtered through the viewpoint of how they think the world views them. (Circular reasoning, yes, I know. But have you ever talked to one of these people?) We all sit on a sliding scale, I guess, some of it due to necessity. If a detective falls to pieces internalizing the fear of her victim, she wouldn't get very far in an investigation.
But empathy is neglected. It requires people to delve deeply inside and uproot all which they would deny, things beyond mortality, our own urges and wants and traits and personal demons that may be socially unacceptable.
This doesn't include faking it. A lot of people learn to fake empathy, at least on a social level. You can pick them out. They typically miss the mark badly, either by mistakenly relating others' experience to an offshoot personal experience, substituting sympathy for empathy, or by misinterpreting others' experiences entirely. They like to swing conversations back around to themselves, to more comfortable ground. I think most people know at some level the precise degree to which they can empathize, whether the bar is set by denial or personality. I certainly run up against my own wall pretty often. I do my best to understand my limits set by denial and to strive past them, but I often sense a great expanse of understanding to which I have no access.
I've long wanted to write a character who struggles with empathy. Not sure if there's room for one in The Silver Scar, but then, examining resistance to empathy and its social consequences could be a book in itself.