Even when this post was just a wee little comment, it rung with me and I’ve been hoping since I read it to blog about it, but time just doesn’t seem to be getting any more plentiful these days (what’s up with that?). Kay Olson on bastard.logic:
In being effective allies, I don’t believe empathy can get us where we want to go. It’s a good place to start. Probably the best and only place to begin, but even with a generous definition of empathy as something that encompasses all manner of attempt to put oneself in another’s shoes, it still relies on the limits of an individual’s imagination. One has to be able to think of whose shoes to stand in and have some inkling of how they might feel. And privilege limits imagination.
Privilege is the ability to look around a room and not notice who is missing, because they weren’t invited, couldn’t take time off work, didn’t have the means to get there, or weren’t allowed in the building because of, oh, dress code or lack of ramps
Pretty brilliant stuff, actually. Because isn’t it nice when you’re in that room with all your friends, and you guys all manage to find warm fuzzy consensus on what the media is treating like some kind of “difficult” topic? I think I was in first year university when I actually, right out loud, said “You know, I think ‘my friends all think this is true’ is a really crappy logical argument, because if my friends were a representative sample of the population, the NDP would be running this here show”. I was 18, so it was a pretty earth-shattering revelation at the time.
If you look at the fact that statistical analysis suggests that people have a lot more difficulty espousing homophobic beliefs after a friend or family member comes out, Kay’s point becomes even stronger. While I’ve certainly met people who can listen to the voices of marginalized people and still scoff, ridicule or attack, those people, fortunately, have been few. I’ve met more who can listen to these stories once, then conveniently forget them once their privilege hat is back on, which is why I am infinitely grateful for the education I have received from bloggers like Kay, who have made that hat feel much less comfortable as the stories have gotten louder. The point is that most people can empathize when you put a story right in front of them. Most people can see a human being on an individual basis, and can understand that the feelings being expressed are real. This is why the feminist movement focuses so much on telling our stories, being allowed to and feeling strong enough to tell our stories, however individual they may seem. It generates empathy, and gradually, painfully slowly, but progressively, people might start to expand their sphere of empathy.
But if they don’t see you, they can’t start. The Feministe thread that Kay references is an absolute horror show, in which the bulk of commenters are able to take an academic distance to the issue of forced sterilization of women with disabilities and contemplate the theoreticals and the intellectualizations and anything but the people. She’s right; it doesn’t seem to occur to them when they’re speaking that the hypotheticals aren’t hypothetical, they’re real and they’re listening, and if you can’t stretch your imagination to assume that possibility, then you probably shouldn’t be surprised when real people tell you they aren’t confident you’re going to be able to stretch your empathy, either.