Empathy for the Devil: In defense of understanding


Have some empathy, Liz Lemon.

noun: empathy
1. the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Let's start by identifying some emotions.

I know that when some of you hear the word "empathy", you feel disgusted: "weak. Feelings and shit. Liberals."

I know that others (probably a lot more of my particular audience) feel irritated: "Oh lord, he's going to say I should empathize with a bunch of racists and deplorables. I'm so sick of that B.S."

Okay, having identified those emotions, let's talk about empathy.

1) What empathy is

Empathy as the ability to understand what another person is feeling. It's a life skill that comes more naturally for some people than others. And it is a skill that can be taught. (Ask any autism researcher or autistic person.)

Empathy is foundational for human relationships - it's essential in a healthy marriage or friendship that there's a shared commitment to understand what the other person is feeling. Indifference to what another person feels is the foundation of broken relationships,  or worse, emotional abuse.

And the pursuit of empathy is based in the fundamental belief that human behavior is driven by emotion as much as belief or thought. If you want to understand why a person does what they do, you have to understand their emotional drivers. That is, you have to empathize.

2) What empathy is not

And this is where it's important to re-iterate a lesson that we all learned in high school vocabulary, but quickly lost in the shuffle of hormones and more pressing things: empathy is not the same thing as sympathy.

Per the Googler:

sympathy: 
1. Feelings of pity or sorrow for someone else's misfortune
2. Common feeling; Support in the form of shared feelings or opinions.

Sympathy is very frequently the thing people are looking for in friendships or marriages. Someone who feels the same way I do.

But as per usual these days, we're talking about politics here, so let me expressly state that, in my opinion, sympathy is neither a necessary or realistic expectation at a societal level. Even when it is deserved, it is frequently too much to ask. Even recognizing that there are situations when it should be appealed to - the refugee discussion comes to mind - it's not what I'm talking about here.

To readers on the right, let me be clear that I'm not asking you to feel sorry for any of us snowflakes.

And to readers on the left, let me be clear that I don't think sympathy for the Donald, or for the devil, gets us anywhere.

But let's be straight about a few things:

In my work on a psychiatric unit, I've learned that understanding what someone is feeling keeps you from getting punched.

Empathy is picking up on cues when someone is pissed. It's locking up the guns when uncle Billy's drunk and angry again. And it's taking steps to de-escalate a situation when it's moving towards violence.

Understanding what other people are feeling is essential in order to understand how to respond to them.

If you, like me, were surprised that Trump won the election, it's probably at least in part because of a failure of empathy. We didn't accurately read the emotional state of the country, or the willingness to lash out at liberals, or the economic desperation, or obliviousness or open antipathy to minority concerns, or extent of popular anger that drove his campaign. Again - that is not an argument that we failed to sympathize. Speaking only for myself, I think it's a positive thing that I fail to sympathize with much of what put the far right in power. But the failure to empathize means I didn't predict what was happening, and didn't work as hard as I should have to prevent it.

On the flip side, if you are currently reading the anger on the left as hysterics, or the whining of sore losers, you are failing to empathize. That is, you are failing to understand how people are really feeling. And you are missing warning signs that a percentage of the population have gotten angry enough to hurt you. I'm not justifying this: I'm pointing out a fact. A large part of the population feels directly attacked by America's current political leadership, and by the political climate in the country as a whole. And a predictable human response when someone feels attacked is to attack back. People feel threatened and pissed.

And so, while America as a whole has empathy fatigue right now, I believe it's also a crucial time to work on it. Just as a failure to understand each other - the emotions that drive us, and get us fired up enough to act - is at the root of a lot of our problems, developing that understanding is the beginning of an appropriate response to the mess that we find ourselves in.

Empathy as a political tool

Because empathy is only about understanding how other people feel, it is a tool that can be used even when you don't sympathize - that is, when you don't feel the same way. Political discussions will always, until the end of time, be discussions between people who don't feel the same way.

But empathy works because even between people who don't feel the same way, it helps establish a shared sense of humanity. A lot has been written about the role of dehumanization in the current domestic and global political climate. And more should be written, because the human ability to hurt other people - whether that's in war or rape or abuse or racism or just everyday schoolyard bullying is rooted, in part, in breakdown of a sense of shared humanity. The sense that the people being hurt are like me is a crucial buffer for the prevention of abuse, and the sense that they are not like me is a crucial first step in the justification of injury. For most of us, understanding what drives another person emotionally makes it harder to make decisions that hurt them - either accidentally or intentionally - because it helps us recognize that they are human, like us. And on the reverse, it makes it easier for us to make decisions that benefit them, and respect their interests.

In this vein, working towards empathy sometimes actually changes the way people feel - or "wins people to your side", as if human decency and survival were a competition (which, yeah, it is). It creates sympathy, because it establishes points of shared interest. I think this is a major part of what is happening on the political left at the moment - people are talking about "intersectionality" between movements, "injustice for anyone is injustice for everyone" and that sort of sentiment. Formerly disparate movements have identified points of shared interest, and shared humanity. I believe that this can happen more widely in society. But again, sympathy is not exactly what is necessary. We don't have to feel the same way about everything. We do have to sympathize with the idea that we're all human.

Where the rubber hits the road, I think empathy can create Republicans who want to make sure Democrats' interests are met, or at least not trampled on. And Democrats who want to make sure Republicans' interests are met, or at least not trampled on.

Even when sympathy doesn't happen, empathy defuses anger. It's a truism, but true, that the right hates the left because they feel they dismiss them ("Liberal pansy elites don't understand hardworking country people", "Immigrants don't care about America enough to even learn the language", and so forth.), and the left hates the right because they feel they dismiss them ("Those ignorant rubes don't even KNOW any Muslims, immigrants or black people!") A quick way to diffuse the sense of being dismissed: to stop dismissing people. Talk to them, try to understand them. It almost doesn't matter if you end up agreeing - it's the essential first thing that people want - particularly from their leadership.

And the harsh but equally important side of all of this is that empathy also helps you understand when not to trust someone. Another message of the psych unit is that there are damaged personalities - people who are more likely to hurt the people around them, either physically, sexually, or emotionally. This post, in fact, started as a personal reflection on the fact that my foundational distrust of the Trump administration stems from my attempt to empathize with him, and my belief that he is in fact one of those types of personalities. But, of course, this isn't just about Trump. There are people who will damage other people if they are allowed to enter certain types of relationships. Empathy is a step towards protecting the innocent from those types of personalities, because it helps to identify that in the people around you.

In most cases, understanding a person helps you trust them more, but in some cases it shows you why you shouldn't trust them - and that itself is crucial information in both personal relationships and political decisions.

Which brings us to:

The Limitations of empathy

There are some stark realities about the human animal:

1) There are people who have little interest in, or a diminished capacity to, empathize with other people. And there are people who have an ability to understand others' emotions, but who use that knowledge to manipulate or use them for their own interests.

2) My read is that far too many of our institutional leaders fit that bill. So much so that it has become a part of the institutional culture of government.

3) People have been at the task of dehumanizing others since Adam knew Eve. So even for motivated people with a fully developed capacity for empathy, there are established barriers, and little, insidious dehumanizing tendencies in all of us. These are deep and instinctual, and the more degrees of separation exist, the easier they are to accept as morally justifiable. Or put another way, the less like you another person is, the easier it is to see them as subhuman.

4) The process of dehumanization - i.e., the pressure not to empathize with your perceived enemy, is socially contagious.

5) The goal of building empathy is most productive when all parties are committed to the task. When one person or group feels that another person or group doesn't get them - or isn't interested in getting you - it makes it easier to fall back on dehumanization.

6) Empathy breaks down more rapidly than it builds up.

7) There's a line where it's more important to respond to an immanent threat than to try to develop empathy with the people you disagree with. The world puts people in that position on a regular basis.

I'd conclude with that, not to end on a downer, but because it's the reason that this shit is urgent.






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