On Empathy

I’m hoping I can keep this one short, but, well, that might take a miracle. I’ve been continuing to swirl some thoughts around in my head about the use of activism as therapy (which was something I put on the list, like, four outrages ago), but I think I’m going to have to limit it to making this basic point about what empathy is and is not.

This is sparked largely by Ren’s gauntlet-throwdown, in turn fueled into being by the latest portion of Maggie Hays’ manifesto. Maggie includes the note that:

we [radical feminists] fully empathize with women in the sex industry.

From the American Heritage Dictionary:

em·pa·thy (n)

  1. Identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives. See synonyms at pity
  2. The attribution of one’s own feelings to an object

I initially expected to see a dictionary definition that looked more along the lines of what I found under “sympathy” (“Mutual understanding or affection arising from a relationship of affinity”), and while I’m still enough of a descriptive linguist to recognize that dictionaries don’t make meaning, meanings make dictionaries, this entry will suffice to help make my point, just from a different angle. Those definitions sort of reinforce the idea that empathy can almost have two directions – one in which the empathized-with defines the emotional trajectory, and one in which the empathizer does. The former requires patient listening, carefully putting yourself aside in order to really get at the reality of the other person’s situation, motives, emotions. The latter means you project your feelings onto a recipient (I’m going to be generous and avoid the temptation to read “object” in that definition in a non-grammatical context, because I don’t think it would be accurate given that it’s a dictionary and all).

I think empathy has been given an undeservedly good reputation these days, equated with unselfishness and compassion and loving kindness. I am, of course, in favour of compassion, though if I explained what I mean by that this would most certainly not be short. I basically think it’s a good idea to try to understand another person’s actions and motivations and to see them as a beast that also has feelings – really a radical thought, I know. But to “empathize completely” with a limited number of others? Well, first of all, that’s going to push a lot of your emotional energies into one particular channel (and therefore limit your ability to be compassionate towards those who don’t fall along that narrow, tunnel-vision stream), but second…that’s a little scary, actually, and kind of a lot like not recognizing what is you and what is not. Like I said a couple of months ago:

I often think about people who have boundary issues not just as people who have trouble maintaining their own or who are inclined to violate those of others, but as people who seem to actually lack the understanding of where you start and they end. Meaning they take on emotion that’s yours in ways that are just inappropriate, and becomes kinda controlling, and can be really overwhelming…

And now that we’ve reached the point of definitely not short at all, it was actually another comment by Ms. Maggie Hays that put me to mind of this earlier in the week (it’s worth reading in its entirety, to get the whole picture of where this “empathy” is coming from, but the choice quote):

I do hope you accept my hugs and apologies. I screwed up and I’m crying just now… I’ve screwed up and it’s truly distressing to me…
I know that you won’t believe me after all this but= please contact me any time you need comfort, I will be there.

(from this thread, bold emphasis mine). You know, I believe, in this case, that Maggie is empathizing – that she is taking all of her emotion and transferring it right onto this other person who was apparently upset by something she said. She’s blurred these boundary things so that instead of actually stopping and listening to the other person whose pain is so upsetting to her, she’s pushing out with her own distress about her own actions and her own screwing up. Personally, I would believe her offer to contact her if I were in need of comfort – I would believe that she would be there and respond, I just wouldn’t want her to, because this (per)version of “empathy” involves way too much of Maggie Hays’ emotions, and way too little of the emotions of those she is empathizing with.

I have family members who have done this during some of the most difficult periods of my life, including following sexual assault – I somehow found myself having to comfort them because the fact that they couldn’t/didn’t protect me was so painful, because it hurt them so much to see me in that kind of pain, because they didn’t know what they would do if I couldn’t be okay again. It’s not a sign of an emotionally healthy adult human being with a solid sense of self. I think there are some that have this conception that crying over the pain of another person (including pain that you maybe caused yourself) should ingratiate you to that person, should lead that person to think that you must really really care about hir, to marvel at and be thankful for the depth of your feelings, when…no. Really, it should (and often does) make the other person feel like you don’t really know how to deal with what’s happened to hir, you aren’t really prepared to be there in a way that is other-centred, and that you have boundary issues.

In that case, I definitely have an elsewhere to be.


7 thoughts on “On Empathy

  1. Debi Crow says:

    Thank you very much for writing this. You’re probably aware I’ve had personal dealings with Maggie (not through choice), and actually find her to be quite a damaging person. Damaging to feminism and to individual women also.

    You have absolutely nailed the essence of Maggie – it is all about her. At the time I was in the process of defecting from online radfemism she emailed me (the same email to both my email address, and it was also sent as a PM on a forum I was on and a comment on my blog) saying very similar things. And it was all about how upset she was, and she was crying while writing it, and couldn’t I just see the error of my ways? and all this.

    I don’t like to see anyone upset, obviously, but it’s extremely manipulative, and uncomfortable.

  2. Debi Crow says:

    Oh, and (sorry, it’s me again) this statement:

    “we [radical feminists] fully empathize with women in the sex industry.”

    …is just a lie. Firstly, Maggie does not represent radical feminism because she is not a radical feminist (there is a lot more to radical feminism than just being anti-porn) and secondly, radical feminists do not empathise with women in the sex industry at all. They feel sorry for the women who have little choice about it, and they think the women who do choose to be in the sex industry are stupid. Where is the empathy in that?

  3. purtek says:

    Yeah, like I said, I can relate to how it feels to have this stuff directed at you personally. It’s guilt inducing, it makes you want to downplay your own hurt in order to deal with the other person’s. And if you’re legitimately upset – whether it’s the person’s fault or not – it just shouldn’t be up to you to put that aside in order to support someone who’s upset-because-you’re-upset. The whole *point* is that if you’re a decent human being, you won’t want to see anyone upset, so you’ll do exactly that just to not have to deal with that upset.

    Generally referred to as the “magical white woman tears” in a lot of anti-racist discussions.

    I half hate writing posts like this, because it’s not really Maggie or radical feminism or even any specific little “club” that it’s about, it’s about a dynamic that’s common in all circles among people who just lack a level of real ability to connect with others. I mean, in my own personal example I’m talking to a large extent about my mother, who is about the furthest thing from a radical feminist that you’d ever see.

  4. Mags can stuff her “empathy”

  5. belledame222 says:

    This is really smart, and lots for me to chew on. Thanks.

  6. observer says:

    Great post, a lot to think about.

  7. purtek says:

    I seem to give my best “chew on” posts when I haven’t slept that much. I should chew on that.

    (thanks belle, observer…and Ren – yeah, that would be the short version).

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