Misconceptions on Empathy
American political and social discourse of late is not without calls for empathy. One sees the term thrown about here and there — pleading for some better version of our conflicted national self. We lament the empathy deficit, decry the growth of partisanship, and wonder how America became two Americas, or perhaps three, or four, or twenty, or a hundred — no one can say for sure. Few interested observers would argue that we suffer from a surplus of empathy, but recognizing the problem and finding a solution are two very different things.
Our leaders — political and civic — are quick to proclaim the importance of empathy but slow in their practice of the same. And with each unfulfilled call for understanding, the very idea of empathy loses power. A call to action, after all, is little more than theatre if not followed by actual action. Empathy then, becomes just another buzzword in the culture wars — something to launch at one’s opponents as a rhetorical arrow. No longer a virtue in itself, empathy, or rather lack thereof, is useful mostly as an accusation to be levied against one’s opponents. In some quarters, empathy has even taken on a more sinister meaning. It is the manifestation of ideological impurity — a crime without equal among those inclined to extreme views.
In truth, the practice of empathy is hard. It is an easy thing to bandy about without much substance, but much harder to put into practice. Acknowledging this is a good first step, but before we can proceed down the path of true empathy, perhaps we should first answer the question of why? Why empathize? What is there to gain? Who will we be when we come out the other side?
At its core, empathy is wrapped up in a very human need — the need to be understood. The ancient Greeks understood πάθος (“pathos”) to mean “suffering” or “feeling”. To have empathy is to be ἐν (“in”) πάθος with someone else. That is, to share in another’s suffering. It is a recognition that something exists beyond the self. To empathize with another is to acknowledge their humanity, knowing full well that their version of right and wrong might refute your own. To do this, one is required to shed the self and become one with the other. So long as you approach another’s humanity through the prism of your own, true empathy will remain out of reach. If empathizing with others is to recognize their humanity, then to be empathized with is to have your own humanity recognized. And in this we can see the fundamental challenge in empathy — we crave recognition from others but we are reluctant to give it to others for fear of losing ourselves in the process.
Taken more broadly, the idea of empathy can be broken into two categories: cognitive empathy; and, emotional empathy. The latter of the two is the type we most often conjure when discussing empathy. It gets to the core of the ancient Greek idea of feeling what another feels — suffering as another suffers. Emotion though is hard to unwrap and almost impossible to precisely replicate. To have emotional empathy is to see that another person is upset and to feel upset as well. But it’s not enough to simply feel the same emotions. You have to feel them for the other person’s reasons, not for your own. Particularly in political discourse, this is an immensely complex task. Ideological emotion is driven by an incalculably large number of factors, both seen and unseen. We may have mastered a sort of community-wide political anger but we all feel it for our own reasons. That is the opposite of empathy.
Although emotion and empathy are necessarily intertwined, we do ourselves a disservice by understanding the idea solely through this lens. In the public and cultural spheres, most of us are uncomfortable with emotion. When we encounter emotion in strangers we tend either to respond with our own emotion or turn the other way (call it an “emotional fight or flight” response.) As the intensity of the emotion increases, which it often does in matters political, our discomfort in facing it intensifies as well. It’s no wonder that we find it so difficult to empathize with one another.
Emotional empathy is important, but perhaps it is too much for us to ask of ourselves, and of others — at least in the beginning. In order to reach emotional empathy, we must first aim for cognitive empathy — that is, taking on the perspective of others without necessarily assuming their emotions as well. Surely this is the easier task for it requires only a logical leap rather than an emotional one. Cognitive empathy merely asks that you acknowledge the possibility that another person acts and feels the way they do for reasons that are rational to them (this is an important distinction — whether or not the reasons are rational to you is immaterial at this stage.) In doing so, you give yourself a bit of mental breathing room. No longer are you required to reconcile some action with your individual values and beliefs — you need only reconcile it with someone’s values and beliefs. In effect, you have taken yourself out of the picture entirely. Empathy lets you consider perspectives that are unconstrained by your sense of self, and in doing so, perhaps find some common thread from which to move the discourse forward.
A common misconception about empathy is that it is equivalent to agreeing with or condoning someone’s actions or ideas. This is absolutely incorrect. You can empathize with another person without agreeing with them. You can acknowledge their humanity without acknowledging the correctness of their actions. We are, each of us, born of a million different experiences and moments in time. If empathizing with someone required agreeing with them, then it would be impossible to empathize with anyone other than those that hold our exact same views (which would make empathy a meaningless exercise anyway.)
Another complaint about empathy is that it is supposedly a sign of weakness. Perhaps this is tied to the emotional character of empathy. The idea seems to be that if you empathize with someone you disagree with, then you are opening yourself up to ideological corruption — that empathy might lead to you changing your mind. The latter part of this is potentially true — empathy might indeed make you change your mind — but this is not weakness. A willingness to acknowledge the possibility that there exist other ideas that are better than your own, is, if anything, a demonstration of strength of character. If we insisted, stubbornly, that the very first thing we believe about anything must be the only possible answer, then we as a species would never evolve. Strength does not come from always being right, it comes from always being willing to seek the right answers, even if it means discarding old ones. The willingness to grow beyond what we are at any given time is what makes us strong in the long run.
In an autocracy, empathy doesn’t hold much import. An autocrat is unlikely to empathize much with those he rules. In a democracy however, empathy is absolutely vital. The very foundation of a democracy is built on the notion that all of us ought to have an equal say in the manner in which we are governed. No single person’s views and beliefs are held above others. And in order to govern effectively, we have to be willing to discuss and compromise with one another. Empathy is what makes this possible. If you refuse to recognize the humanity of your fellow citizens, how can you possibly expect to engage in discourse with them? Moreover, how can you expect them to engage in discourse with you?
Somewhat paradoxically, in a cooperative system of governance empathy can be as much about the self as it is about the other. For sure, you must put yourself aside and consider the perspectives of others; however, the unspoken expectation as that others will do the same for you. In this fashion, the act of recognizing others’ humanity is a means of recognizing your own. In the end, isn’t that all any of us want?
Coexistence in a society made up of many varied and competing constituencies is difficult. The only way to make it work, without constantly being at one another’s throats, is empathy. This does not mean that you have to give up your own views. Even in an empathetic state individuals are fully at right to hold passionate and sincere positions on controversial issues. Indeed, a functioning democracy requires that individuals promote what they believe in with fervor and passion. Acknowledging that others might have equal passion in their own views, even if they differ from yours, is not ideological abdication. It is a statement of strength that says you are prepared to seek the best answer to a problem rather than simply your answer. It says that you are confident enough in your own values to permit for the possibility that personal growth is still needed, and that not only will you fundamentally be the same person on the other side, but a better version of that person.
Empathy isn’t easy, but it is necessary. We have designed a system of governance that demands cooperation — no matter how much you want something, you’ll never get it unless those around you concur with the merit of your ideas. And in order for that to happen, you have to acknowledge that other people may have something worth saying. That does not mean you have to adopt their ideas wholesale, at the expense of your own, but it does mean that you have to stop long enough to consider whether they might be right (and by extension, that you might be wrong.)