Empathy and Invisibilia

The new episode of Invisibilia is at times both incredible but ultimately, frustrating to me.

It starts with an interesting premise: a new producer, Lina Misitzis, is given the task of cutting a raw interview into a small story as a test, but the hosts are shocked at the difference in tone of her work when compared to their own version of the story they produced concurrently.

Much credit to the host, Hanna Rosin, for having the humility and courage to consider the possibility that maybe her existing team got their version of the story wrong, and allowing for the question of whether or not Misitzis’ story got closer to the truth.

From there, they play NPR’s full story about a sympathetic interview with a former “incel” and the moment he realized he could change. It’s a classic redemption story, much like the ones I’ve heard about ex-Klan members and those that left cults or restrictive churches before on NPR.

Then they play the full version of the new producer’s story, and it tells a different tale. She doesn’t cut out parts of interviews that cast the subject in a bad light, and those same interview clips take on entirely new meanings when a fuller picture emerges.

Rosin then goes all-in on how NPR hosts typically approach stories with unlimited empathy, how putting the listeners and viewers into the shoes of their subjects is their bread and butter. She brings on an expert to talk about the importance of empathy, and disturbing trends in empathy decreases in younger people, and how a world without empathy would be a terrible place.

It’s at this point that I started to get a little upset about this episode. It quickly felt like a Boomer/GenX vs. Millennials moment where younger people are being blamed for being more reserved or careful with doling out their empathy. It feels like Rosin sets this up as a strawman argument, where if you can’t have total empathy you must have none, and that younger generations were well on their way to ruining society by making it free of empathy.

I wish the show recast its glare on the story prepared by existing NPR staff. Why did they cut out parts of the interviews where the subject downplays the feelings of his ex and underplays the danger he was putting her in? He says a lot of terrible things that ended up on the cutting room floor because it didn’t fit the narrative. To me, that’s the real story the new producer uncovered.

Why can’t the show’s hosts talk about a middle ground—one that I myself have come around to—which is offering strangers the benefit of the doubt and full empathy as a default, but also knowing when you are met with someone truly toxic (like the subject of the episode’s story) that it’s quite alright and downright healthy to completely cut off, shut down, and/or avoid them. Instead, they go further on a tangent about how being selective with your empathy (like people do with politics) leads to tribalism, but honestly it sounds childish and ridiculous.

The more the episode progressed, the more I was in support of Lina Misitzis’ take. The subject of their interviews is a truly awful, abusive person who committed many crimes that he consistently downplayed. He hadn’t changed his retrograde views on women at all, his story wasn’t a classic redemption story, and NPR’s traditional coverage style was sugar coating it and in the wrong.

At the very end, they give the show’s subject one last chance to come clean, with a quick interview featuring hosts of both versions of his story, and he makes it perfectly clear he didn’t change much, that he was just trying to repair the damage his actions caused in his own life, and that he’s only interested in making life easier for himself. It ends on this discordant note.

I love Invisibilia and I love the broad range of stories in past episodes, but the way Rosin and staff treated this one feels really off, leaving me feeling uneasy and dissatisfied with lingering questions they never fully answered.