Personal Rant: Lack of Empathy

In comments to this post, Jay and I got to talking about what it is I (we) really don’t understand about many of the people with whom we find ourselves in difficult conversations (to put it diplomatically). In sum, I can understand and appreciate and respect disagreement. What I don’t get is the complete lack of empathy for another person’s basic humanity.

It’s not just an inability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, it’s a complete unwillingness to recognize that this someone else is speaking from a place of very real and very personal emotion. For the sake of remaining concise, let’s limit this to my own experiences as a feminist talking about sexual violence. I acknowledge fairly publicly that I’ve been raped on multiple occasions. I acknowledge that I’ve been abused in other ways that are less easily named. I talk about the ways these abuses and assaults continue to affect me in my day to day interactions. I talk about fear, anger, grief, loss, attempts to enter into new relationships, what it means to trust again, and plenty more. I talk about the fact that practically every aspect, every event, every relationship that has taken place during the second half of my 28 years on this earth has been affected by one event that probably lasted, in and of itself, no more than twenty minutes. I talk about the later assaults, including about how some of them were facilitated by the use of alcohol. I’ve been working for weeks on one post about trust and love and connection in this context–for weeks because I start to write it, then have to stop because I realize I’m just complaining in circles for no productive communicative purpose, and only making myself more miserable, or because I start digging up emotions I’m not quite prepared to recognize yet, either publicly or privately.

And these people laugh. They will flat-out say “Wow, you’re really funny, getting all worked up about this stuff that doesn’t bother me at all”. If they’re slightly more savvy about it, there’s just a general tone of condescension and mockery to their dismissals of your opinions and conclusions. More than anything else, there’s the definite message that they want to defeat you in this conversation. This is not about cooperation. They know that they are right, you are wrong, and they would enjoy seeing you cave.

This is what I really don’t understand about people who are so hostile towards feminism, people who dismiss us as exaggerating the problems of violence against women in order to further our cause. This image exists in their head of a cackling, witch-like, unfeeling feminist, and what they want is to see that woman broken, that horrible man-hating smirk wiped right off of her face.

So let me be perfectly clear: this causes me pain. Talking about this causes me pain. Talking about my own experiences causes me pain. Listening to friends tell me about their experiences causes me pain. Reading stories in the newspaper about this causes me pain. And hearing people laugh about the fact that this causes me pain causes me more pain than anything else. I have absolutely no desire to “win” anything in these conversations. I will argue, and I will cite statistics, and I will acknowledge that I think I’m right about what’s “true” in terms of these dynamics and that I would love to educate others on that truth. But the point of doing that is to increase cooperation and understanding and more than anything else, empathy.

Talking to someone who has absolutely no willingness to recognize that this causes me pain, that I feel no great sense of victory, and that this way is not, in fact, the “easy” way to live is the one thing that makes me feel completely hopeless. Because it’s not an inability to recognize that. Any number of people can say exactly what I’m saying here and have said exactly what I’m saying here, and anyone who understands English is capable of seeing what we’re talking about. Can they all “understand” what it means to feel this kind of pain, or experience this kind of violence, or whatever? Probably not, but the concept of “understanding” an emotion is an extremely abstract one and not what we’re talking about here, anyway. What they are capable of doing is seeing and believing that pain exists, and approaching the issue from the perspective of cooperation.

If they don’t, it’s because they’re not willing. If they’re not willing, it’s because they have a lack of empathy so deep it means they essentially don’t recognize that what we say comes from a real human being. And that is seriously fucked right up.


3 thoughts on “Personal Rant: Lack of Empathy

  1. BetaCandy says:

    Empathy makes it harder to enjoy your privilege without guilt. Therefore, many people avoid empathetic feelings at all cost.

    Kinda like wealthy people who cheat to avoid paying taxes crabbing about welfare folks draining all our tax dollars.

    They’ve always been around and they always will be. Talking to them will never help. Taking away their privileges would, but that’s not something you often have a chance to do. Still, once in a while you do find yourself with power over someone like this, and boy, is it sweet if you can bring yourself to treat them with precisely the same empathy they’ve always extended others.

  2. purtek says:

    I don’t know how I missed this comment when it was posted; sorry.

    I know these people have always been around, and I know writing stuff like this doesn’t help in the sense of convincing any of them of anything. But it helps me work through it, in some ways, because I doubt I could ever bring myself to treat someone with a complete lack of empathy. I think I would end up just feeling like they had finally, fully, completely won–they had taken away something that I had always managed to hold on to. Mostly, I get away with this by never having to see them again.

  3. kisekileia says:

    Honestly, I don’t think it’s even worth talking to those people. In November I left a message board that I’d been part of for nearly 8 years because a profound lack of empathy on the administrator’s part, among other things, had led to the most egregious case of victim-blaming I’d ever personally seen in action. I’m surprised how little I miss it, and the people with no empathy didn’t listen to me anyway.

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