on empathy

Undeniably, empathy is an ingrained part of human nature that we must address with a conscientious effort; to be empathetic to those who are different from us, are Other, by no means comes naturally to us. In this way, empathy for our fellows becomes all the more valuable as it is the product of hard work, the consistent exercise of virtue, all of which serves to arguably better the self. In practicing empathy, one is able to move beyond the confines of the individual and become part of a larger, interconnected community.

Clearly, the problem of empathy is very pertinent to today, perhaps more so than ever. There have been an increasing number of news reports investigating the rise in hate crimes in the UK and US, particularly in regards to Muslim women and transgender people among others, many of whom have reported that they have modified their behaviour or dress to become less of a target. It could be argued that such hate crime has its roots in an inability to empathise with others that are different from us, from an inability to relate. Numerous news agencies, including the BBC and the Independent, have released reports detailing such crime statistics for 2016, most of which indicate that the three incentives for attack were based on race, religion and sexual orientation, unsurprising in an increasingly tense global political climate. Perhaps, when considering causes, our increasingly problematic global political dynamics might be mentioned; the rise of populism; the ongoing international conflicts or even the disconnect resulting from our increasingly digitalized age. Whatever the cause, however, the important thing is that it is addressed, my aim here being to examine the possible negative effects of social difference and potentially, tentatively offer solutions to that issue, as simplistic as they may be.

Refraining from empathising with others facilitates behaviour that would be considered morally reprehensible if committed against a fellow. That the common factor behind the spike in hate crime is difference (in race, religion or sexual orientation, as mentioned) indicates that when one considers one to be the Other, they lose the fundamental sense of fellowship that is key for a well-functioning society. In its place comes fear and resentment, eventually translating itself to hatred and compelling one to act on one’s prejudices. When man feels kinship with another and can empathize with them, he feels obliged to act towards them with consideration and loyalty, at the core of human nature there being an essential sociability. Perhaps this may seem too reductionist in implying that man is essentially an exclusionist creature that places an inordinate amount of importance on tribes, though it should be pointed out that one can learn a lot from the past. Many of the major atrocities of human history have been made possible by this dehumanization, this Othering, so to speak, of unfamiliar peoples. In a sense, however, this carries a hopeful message in that we might learn to treat others with more dignity and respect if only we train ourselves to better respond to the unfamiliar.

Perhaps, however, this proposition is too ambitious, in which case it might be better to distinguish between ‘empathy’ and ‘sympathy’. The former necessitates that there is an understanding, a shared feeling between two parties whereas the latter means that one can appreciate the suffering of another though may not have this same understanding of what they are going through. This is an important line to draw as it has serious implications for its practical application. It seems clear that it would be patronizing, even downright insulting, to assume that we might understand the experiences and struggles of others, particularly in regards to our 3 main factors: race, religion and sexual orientation. As a white female, I cannot in any way pretend to comprehend what it must be like to be a woman of colour, a transgender male or a Muslim in a society fraught with prejudice and intolerance. To do so would be to undermine and devalue the experiences of these other, different people. I might readily admit that I have lead a very privileged, sheltered life without knowing the extent of what that really means and its true implications. Perhaps, then, there are limits to the scope of empathy that rather properly belong to that of sympathy if we are to respect the variant experiences of others.

Does this mean, however, that we cannot empathise with people who are, in some respects, unlike us? Of course not. Though we may be different there remain fundamental similarities that we share which allow for empathy, for fraternity. In this sense, we might empathise with shared, common feeling but actively try to sympathise with the particular experiences of others, with the way in which they experience the world that might be inaccessible to us. By this I do not mean to insinuate that people who are different from myself require my sympathy but rather one should acknowledge that they are unable to truly understand their experiences though still seeks to establish a connection. Each member should actively work to bridge the gap of apparent unfamiliarity to relate to others, whose essential nature identical to their own, while sympathising with that which they may not understand, their form of life. In this sense, it seems as though empathy and indeed sympathy are crucial components of a functional, diverse State, perhaps never more necessary than in our modern, thoroughly divided society.

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