The Limits of Human Empathy

Even among good, kind, well-meaning people, which most people are, empathy has its natural limitations. Unless we have actually experienced a thing, the specific suffering it causes can be hard to understand, even inconceivable, until someone who has suffered a certain way recounts it to us in a way that moves us to empathize. We can also get overwhelmed by empathy when we watch a video of victimization that is particularly harrowing. Both of these forms of empathy are of generally short duration, because we are most enduringly empathetic to the troubles of those most like us.

I was reminded of this the other night when a woman I’ve known for decades told me she always took the NYC bus rather than the subway, had done so since her teenaged years. It took her longer to get around, but she always sat near the driver and didn’t have to worry about creeps bothering her. When she told me this I understood immediately, and it made perfect sense, but I have been on 2 a.m. subways many times over the years and never once worried about a creep making a creepy sexual advance in my direction. I literally never thought about how regularly menacing things are on a late night subway for a woman.

Same with race, whites argue about the extent of racism all the time, pugnacious experts like Bill Barr use it as a potent “fuck you”, saying there is no systemic racism in the American justice system and Blacks better show gratitude to the cops who disproportionately, inadvertently, manhandle and kill them, or else.

Like my female friend on the bus, no black person I’ve ever met has any doubt about the prevalence of racism in the USA. When you directly encounter a reality every day, it takes on a much different aspect than when you imagine something in a thought experiment, with no danger of actually experiencing the thing you are weighing in your mind.

Any black person I’ve ever talked to about history immediately identifies famous progressive president and League of Nations idealist Woodrow Wilson as a racist, klan sympathizer, and wanton slaughterer of brown people. I was an adult before I came across the indisputable proof that the man who re-segregated the federal government and gushed over D.W. Griffith’s epic three-reel paean to the heroic Ku Klux Klan as being “like history written in lightning!”, the only US president who was a child of the Confederacy, was, whatever else he might have been, a white supremacist. He put the first Jew on the Supreme Court, distinguished champion of justice Louis Brandeis, but it’s safe to assume Wilson didn’t think much of the masses of Jews, particularly the poor ones that were teeming into North American slums during his time.

This same principle of the empathy/experience disconnect works for just about any vexation you can think of. Think of how truly empathetic you can be about a situation you have never remotely experienced yourself. You feel terrible, sure, and empathize at once, even if abstractly, because suffering is suffering, but, truly, how much can you actually identify with an unfamiliar horror?

A terminal cancer diagnosis, dementia, a child with a terrible lifelong disease, or who dies as an infant, sudden blindness, being a quadriplegic, being poor, being the victim of serial rape, or beatings, working full-time for less money than you need to pay rent, being unfairly imprisoned, being a family member or close friend of the wrongfully convicted and executed, or the family of the guy busted for selling joints who causes his entire family to be evicted and disqualified from public housing for life, or the guy who spends many pre-trial months in prison after arrest because he can’t afford to post bail — and then, on advice of counsel, takes a plea for “time served” for a crime he didn’t necessarily commit, the list is literally endless.

So, sure, many of us are kind, well-intentioned people who truly hate injustice and will leap to help anyone in trouble when we see it. That is not the question here. I’m raising the slippery idea that unless you’ve actually experienced a certain horror, empathy is far from automatic or intuitive. We can imagine the pain of a certain disease or loss, the agony of being wrongfully convicted and having the rest of your life become a one-sided battle you cannot win, but we are imagining it.

And sometimes we imagine it only when confronted with an evocation of it so wrenching that even a monster would be moved by it. Like watching big, strong George Floyd, legitimately in fear for his life, in a nation with arguably no racism in policing, being slowly murdered by several police officers who will file a routine, false report about Floyd getting hysterical (you know how they get) having a medical emergency and dying en route to the hospital, poor guy.

This entry was posted in musing.

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