--Grand Moff Tarkin, Star Wars, (1977)
This is something that I've been kicking around for a very long time, and which I suppose doesn't really need a good "hook" to tie it to, as the problem never seems to go away. We talk a lot about "empathy," defined in Webster's as "the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this", and the need of it for a functioning, humane society - or the horror of it, according to the conservatives in this country, with the somewhat surreal spectacle of rightwing pundits openly booing the concept of empathy as a significant part of their measured opposition to the nomination of Judge Sotomayor to the US Supreme Court.
This didn't work very well, because "Empathy Bad! Boo! Hiss!" is a trope that isn't as widely accepted outside the conservative bubble as its employers believed, and a meme, like a joke, that has to be unpacked and set up before most people can "get" it, just doesn't work in the id-stimulating way that slogans need to operate.
As for the mystifying-to-many rationale behind why the NRO crew et al thought that "Down With Empathy!" would be a good tack to take, it could be explored at length and in tedious detail, but it really does boil down to the essential misogyny of conservativism, and that Brittle Masculinity that Stephen Ducat and so many others have observed and described in the wild - the idea-cluster that a) caring about others is essentially "feminine" and b) what is "feminine" is weak and thus bad, along with c) a specious belief in a spuriously-rational "objectivity" as a masculine and therefore beneficial trait.
All kinds of other fears and disordered attitudes are tangled up into it, but at the heart of the knot is the conviction that giving way to others (people who don't look or talk or believe or pray like you) - or even considering what possible reasons others might have for what they do, even if you don't give them what they want - is girly, and thus gay; ironically, this fear of virtual emasculation (a gender-neutral angst, as it strikes at the "honorary manhood" of the self-othered, male-identified conservative woman too) is itself a fear of a rational objectivity, since empathy requires one to step outside one's own limitations to the best of one's abilities, to break free of the juvenile "me-me-me" and consider the realities of other persons.
The fact that they considered this attitude to be more widespread than it is, is itself an example of a very common failure of empathy which I will address in more detail presently.
The typical example of lack-of-empathy that leaps to mind is someone who just doesn't give a damn about others' sufferings, who is so far from capable of imagining what it's like to walk in another's shoes that they blithely dismiss all hardships not their own as unreal. The archetype of this in English fic is Ebenezer Scrooge, with his infamous retort to the local food pantry pledge drive:
“Scrooge and Marley’s, I believe,” said one of the gentlemen, referring to his list. “Have I the pleasure of addressing Mr. Scrooge, or Mr. Marley?”
“Mr. Marley has been dead these seven years,” Scrooge replied. “He died seven years ago, this very night.”
“We have no doubt his liberality is well represented by his surviving partner,” said the gentleman, presenting his credentials.
It certainly was; for they had been two kindred spirits. At the ominous word “liberality,” Scrooge frowned, and shook his head, and handed the credentials back.
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.
“Both very busy, sir.”
“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”
“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”
“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.
“You wish to be anonymous?”
“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned—they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides—excuse me—I don’t know that.”
“But you might know it,” observed the gentleman.
“It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned. “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”
Seeing clearly that it would be useless to pursue their point, the gentlemen withdrew. Scrooge resumed his labours with an improved opinion of himself, and in a more facetious temper than was usual with him...
This sort of egregious I-got-mine-screw-everybody-else is deservedly condemned as the epitome of the absence of empathy, and it is certainly very common today - and no different from Dickens' era, just read the comments on any news article in the US or UK on crime or prison brutality if you feel like flattering yourself that we are altogether a less-brutal species, or society, today - even if it gets a splash of whitewash even in our post-Reagan, post-Thatcherian world with unctuous smarm like "I believe in teaching a man to fish" (in a world where fishing licences cost an arm and a leg, and fishing permits are to be had only with connections) or "God helps those who help themselves" - always from people who take every last scrap the law allows, and then some that aren't allowed either, in my experience.
But there are other sorts of failures of empathy, not all of which are recognized - and some of which are seen as acts of benevolence, of well-meaning, even! And though just as the "harsh" EmpathyFail is stereotypically "masculine", this "benign" EmpathyFail is usually classed as "feminine", in my experience, it too is an equal-opportunity offender. Though the "benign" EmpathyFail is a far more common failing among liberal/progressive sorts (at least overtly) than the "harsh", which is why I feel impelled to post about it - beams & splinters & all that!
Here are a few frequently-encountered IRL and online examples:
- "I'm cold/hot, therefore you must/not wear warm clothing no matter how uncomfortable it makes you feel."
- "I am a man, therefore I can speak for all men, and you being a woman cannot contradict me, and any and every man who disagrees about "the male experience" with me is lying, - particularly if he claims to respect you (or any woman) and not just want the one thing from you that all men only want from all women..."
- "I know JUST how you must feel as a result of X personal tragedy - and if you say otherwise you're simply wrong."
- "Of course all of us being women just care about shoes/can't think analytically/care about clean homes, tee hee!"
Amusingly, while I was starting on the first draft of this rant a few weeks ago, in one of those sit-com coincidences so rare IRL, I encountered a particularly choice bit of EmpathyFail not long ago as I was working on a Defargean post for Daily Kos in one window and commenting in a thread there in another, where at the exact same time as I was cataloging typical Liberal ElitistTM EmpathyFail offenses to give the pseudo-benevolent prior & fair warning before smiting, I was being told by the same Clueless Boomer (whom I'd never encountered previously and thus had no way of knowing anything about me beyond the two or three comments I'd posted in that thread!) firstly that she knew my family and my past life better than I did - she admitted after I chewed her out for this overweening arrogance that she was in fact projecting her own issues and past on mine without any evidence. (But this did not stop her from then going on to commit a classic "But why don't you just EAT the nice cake, silly peasant?" in the form of telling me that I should just move someplace else where good jobs grow on trees - at which point I decided that this particular Aged Hippie wasn't corrigible and despite first-hand recollections of the Sixties didn't have anything useful or interesting to say to the other half (or 3/4) of us.)
The specifics will of course vary, but has anybody not had to deal with some form of these? Or with the defenders of those who commit such boundary-intrusions on the grounds that "they just mean well," they simply are lacking in clue--?
Much "innocent" "cluelessness" I would argue is actually the expression not simply of privilege and lack of experience, but also of EmpathyFail.
Why? Because having the least ability to conceive of what another's experience might be - or rather, having the ability to recognize the limits of one's own experience, and that there ARE experiences outside, and different from it - would prevent such a manifestation of Gross Lack of Clue. It's not just not Rocket Sci 101, it's not even Simple Machines. You just don't say to someone you know is struggling to make ends meet, that they ought to take a year off and go to Europe, it's so culturally enriching! if you're not completely devoid of empathy. You don't rattle on about how hard it is now that your IRA is suffering under the stock market downturn, to someone who has told you repeatedly that they can't afford to eat regular meals and still pay the rent. You don't force gifts on people that they have expressed a reluctance to take, and ignore their reasons for not wanting them; or blather on about how much fun your vacation was, to employees that you have forbidden to take time off yourself - or blithely insist that yes, someone CAN afford to go to the ballet/NYC/buy a car/get decent tools/start a business if they just
There is no real benevolence going on in these sorts of encounters: they are power games, little bits of pack animal dominance, kicking and biting carried out under the lying disguise of words. Even the least little bit of real empathy would cause one to be aware that not everyone is in the same fiscal circumstances, and to try to avoid doing anything to bring embarrassment and distress to said others (and in some cases real harm, when pressure to participate or not distress the "benign" EmpathyFailer causes the too-empathic victim of said benevolence to just go along with something that they can't afford or which might cause them real illness, such as when people force unhealthy foods on them.)
--Mind you, empathy does not always bring forgiveness or the willingness to turn a winking eye to transgression or to rescue the offender at the cost of one's own well-being: the dorje moment of understanding when the thunderbolt penny drops can be one of pure red raging fury, as one comprehends exactly how AND why one has been used or abused, and to what larger (or smaller) ends. "NOW I get it - how dare you?!" may be the outcome. Or, sometimes stepping into another's shoes just makes you want to kick them harder, iow.
But of all of the most frequent instance of EmpathyFail that I see in Left Blogistan is the inability to comprehend that yes, Virginia, there really are people out there who genuinely disagree with you and who genuinely believe the things they say, no matter how alien to your belief systems or how stupid such things may seem to you: this takes the form of insisting that someone must be "trolling" when they make claims that - frex - I and nearly all the people I knew growing up until I was in high school took for granted as unquestionable truths. Just because you might find it "inconCEIVable!" yourself, does not mean that everyone else does - and thus is just playing a mind game online to mess with the gullible for twisted kicks, typing with tongue firmly in cheek, so to speak.
--Yes, there are levels of belief, and yes, there come various points at which cognitive dissonance is faced and then fled in order to maintain group coherence - but these are things which are only recognizable by virtue of having engaged in them, the sorts of self-deceptions willingly practiced upon ourselves of all kinds in order to avoid being singled out as a weirdo or nonconformist in whatever society we happen to be in. (Yes, everybody does it, not just conservative Christians! Just try challenging the CW on Hiroshima and Dresden or sexism, even in the liberal blogosphere.) As Slacktivist has gone into in length, the reason that there is dissonance and the corresponding pain of mental struggle is that one does hold these beliefs genuinely, but has never had them seriously challenged until now. --The parallel to smug liberals who can't believe that anybody REALLY believes that all "heathens" are going to hell, or that God hates trousers (on women, or on anyone) or that gay sex will result in a societal apocalypse or that scientists are all in on grand liberal plots to Destroy America (to pick a few), can hardly be more ironic.
If you really can't conceive of the possibility that someone could hold the exact opposite of the beliefs you take for granted - then you need to a) shut up, b) start working on it. Otherwise you're going around like someone shouting "I can't believe that 2+2 is 4! You gotta be kidding me! 2 2s make 4? No way!" Also, how have you managed to make it to an age where you can type fluently and use a computer, without ever interacting IRL with people who disagree with you? Even by the time I was 13, as an extremely sheltered conservative kid, I was well aware that large numbers of people didn't agree with us, and not all of them were just "faking it" either. Even within the movement - the Gold Standard wasn't a big deal to our crew, but I'd have to have been willfuly delusional to think that nobody cared about it, or that the people writing and ranting about it were just putting it all on.
Case in point, Fluoridation Opposition. As I've said before, fluoridation of drinking water to help prevent tooth decay is so widely taken as a Good Thing in mainstream American society, and has been for so long, that even growing up surrounded by Culture Wars types in the early 1970s I had literally never encountered someone who thought it was a Bad Thing until I first saw Dr. Strangelove in the latter 80s - and then I thought it was a joke, part of the whole skewed Looking-Glass world in which the Coca-Cola Co. is a bigger force to be reckoned with than nuclear Armageddon and world leaders with absurdly-ribald names talk seriously about mineshaft gaps and the happy likelihood of Mutual Assured Destruction resulting in harems for all!
Thus my very first reaction, my instinctive response upon reading an LTE in the Nineties in which someone was ranting about Godless Commie Fluoridation, was to think that it had to be a spoof, a tongue-in-cheek gag inspired by Dr. Strangelove itself - but then I reread the letter, and I recalled that the author's name was one I'd seen before attached to other crank rants on subjects that were all too familiar to me as Serious Topics Of Discussion By Serious People I knew IRL (Decline of the West due to sex & rock music & decrease in child-beating & churchgoing) and I was faced - lacking at that moment the ability to research "wacky paranoias in US pop culture of the mid-20th century" - with two possibilities.
1) Concerned Citizen who has been ranting to the local paper under their own name and address in stock Culture Wars tropes for the past 5 and more years has been doing so as a piece of ongoing performance art, being willing to play the zealot now espousing beliefs embarrassing even by local conservative pop cultural standards;
2) Concerned Citizen really is concerned about Commie Plots To Make Us Weak Via Fluoride In The Water, just as much as s/he is about prayer in schools, miniskirts, condoms, abortion, spanking, and the need to make sure that "In God We Trust" is never taken off our coinage - which would indicate that Kubrick didn't come up with and cause the notion that Fluoridation was a commie plot, but instead was simply reporting on reality! Which was a horribly disturbing thing to contemplate, and I could then, as I can now, quite easily understand why it would be preferable to believe that Concerned Citizen was just having us on playing the fool, because if Ripper's monomania about Purity Of Essence wasn't fiction, what the hell else wasn't actually a whacky Wonderland invention spurred by the need to go OTT in a time of madness? (As it happened, neither the mineshaft gap nor the "Harems for all us ubermale survivors, whee!" were, either.)
But, merde alors, comforting fictions aren't really very comforting, are they? At least I ceased to find them so, lang syne. I'd rather know about pits before I stumble into them!
Another example, milder perhaps, but no less annoying - or symptomatic - is the politics-transcending failure to accept that people just have different tastes from one's own, and genuinely like things one doesn't care for and dislike things one consideres excellent. This may be a literal matter of taste - I've had people insist that I can't really dislike or enjoy various foodstuffs even as I - or it may be metaphorical: how many times does one encounter claims that "fans of X are just posers, because nobody could REALLY like X!" or that "you're just SAYING you hate Y, to be contrary!"
The EmpathyFailer here is slipping into narcissism, or even solipsism, really (though it may well be that all failures of empathy are on a continuum from solipsism through narcissim through an ever-expanding awareness of the wider world, like the samsara-enlightenment journey) and this is just a most blatantly obvious case) and completely disregards the fact that there are boundaries between persons, that one cannot just export one's own likes and dislikes and overwrite the existence of other individuals, erasing their experiences over their own objections! It's one thing to say, "Ew, how can you like that? I think it's gross!" and another thing to believe that somebody else also thinks that beer/wine/coffee/what-have-you are disgusting, and consumes them anyway to "impress" other people who also are just pretending to like them to impress each other. To do the latter is an act of hubris, and nothing else.
--Saying "I don't understand/I don't know/can't imagine what X must be like" is, paradoxically, not a case of EmpathyFail but an example of empathy-in-action: this class of statement is a recognition of personal experiential boundaries, of the non-universalism and non-extensibility of one's own personal experiences, and an acknowledgment of the irreducible realness of the other person. Thus, by stating the difference between us, a bridging has been made, an attempt to imagine the experience of another has had the result of a humility of interaction, rather than the sort of privileged sweeping-away of the Other that "I know JUST how you feel!" so often entails.
Go on. You know you want to say it. It's okay. Really.