So today on twitter, a dear friend brought up the subject of how empathy differs from sympathy and the importance of learning it. It’s not a skill that is really valued or emphasized in our culture, which is arguably one of the reasons we tend to have so much difficulty having a real discussion about difficult subjects.
At the end of a series of tweets, she said “Alright class over go home”. I joked “will this be on the test”, and got back “no but I want to hear next week about your experiences putting this into practice in everyday life”. I figure that’s probably a good exercise, and I’ve been meaning to write some more anyway; why not talk a little about my journey toward empathy?
I came late to empathy, really. For a long time I was a real asshole, both on the internet and often in person. I spent several years as what we now tend to call an Internet Atheist, very self-satisfied with my own Logic and Reason, and quick to disdain Irrationality and Feelings. I’m not really sure when I started to realize things had gone wrong there, but I think it was probably around the time the incident known as “elevatorgate” blew up.
To give a quick summary for those not familiar, Rebecca Watson had participted in a panel discussion in which she’d talked about sexism in the atheist community, and how she was made uncomfortable by the way women are often treated there. Afterward a man followed her into an elevator and hit on her. She then mentioned it in a video, described how being a single woman being hit on in a hotel elevator in a foreign country at 4am by a stranger made her uncomfortable. She then committed an unforgivable sin by saying “guys, don’t do that.” For this, she has been made a pariah and villain by vast swaths of the atheist/skeptic community, mocked by Richard Dawkins, and been constantly hounded with threats of rape and death even to this day.
The thing that stands out to me today in recalling the reactions to her story is not so much the blatant misogyny (though there’s plenty of that), but the number of people who insisted on telling her that she was wrong to feel that way, that her personal experience was incorrect. There was a lot of commentary that boiled down to I can imagine a situation in which this man’s actions were completely inoffensive to me, so you were wrong to have the feelings you did. I’m really not sure if that storm was the start of my journey toward empathy, but it certainly helped push me.
Another catalyst was, in an odd turn, following some joke-making twitter accounts, especially Amber aka @rare_basement. She’s a very funny person, but also just talked about her life; from money problems to escaping heroin addiction to outright falling in love across twitter. She would also talk about being sexualized/objectified by certain twitter followers, and the awful things they would tweet to her. I noticed a pattern among people who said funny things on twitter; that there was a class of follower that would get upset, even irate, at the jokeperson having the temerity to talk about real life instead of the constant comedy tweets that the followers apparently thought they had paid for.
I’m an extremely shy person (fun fact: as I was writing that sentence, I first typed “extremely shit person”, good work Freud), and tend to shrink away from replying to twitter people that I don’t already know. The thing about that is that even if my initial reaction was to disagree, I didn’t automatically get into an argument. I started to just listen to what people had to say; to realize that their feelings were valid outside of my own experience. To try to understand their feelings without reflexive judgement; to really try to see their perspective instead of looking for an opening to reaffirm mine.
I’d long considered myself a feminist, or feminist ally, but while I had been upset at the misogyny I saw, I realized that my concept of feminism was about exactly that; my feelings about misogyny. This isn’t to say that my own feelings are without merit, but part of being an actual ally is to recognize when you are putting your own status above those of the group you supposedly support. Reexamining my assumptions and really listening to people–especially people whose opinions differ from mine–has vastly improved my understanding of feminism and the often-complicated issues involved.
What’s really difficult though, is learning to empathize with those you disagree with, even vehemently. Empathizing doesn’t mean that you come around to their point of view, mind; but that you try to understand how they got there without automatically discounting it. Honestly engaging with someone else’s perspective is an extraordinarily powerful tool for learning.
Now, please don’t think that I’m trying to brag about how great I am at this, because I’m not. I’m learning, and it’s often a real struggle. I still have knee-jerk reactions about other people that are often extremely unfair. But I try to stop and interrogate those reactions now; to ask why I’m having them, and what that other person might think from their perspective, and just maybe I’m actually a little full of shit.
A warning: discovering empathy will likely make you sad and angry and frustrated about a lot of things. This is unpleasant, but important. Understanding other peoples’ pain makes you more aware of what causes that pain, and will hopefully also drive you to help fight those causes.
I’ve come to find that one of the most important realizations I can have is “oh, I hadn’t thought of that.”