Saturday, January 8, 2011

Empathy is Violent

I'm often surprised at how many people are anti-empathy. I'm not just saying people lack empathy (I'm commonly guilty of that), but some people are actually opposed to the very idea of being empathetic.

I participated in a discussion in an English class one time where me and my buddy Mike were advocating an ethic of empathy. The majority of the people who participated in the discussion opposed our advocacy and voiced the opinion that empathy is a bad thing! I personally knew some of these kids to be Christians (and the majority of my school was LDS), which makes these kids opinions all the more unsettling. Given Christ's project of charity, I thought empathy would just be intuitive. How can you claim to love another person - Christ said love all people - if you can't even claim to understand the person? [1]

Why did so many of these students distrust empathy? Their comments suggested that fear was the primary problem. The idea was that if you understand another person, than you will either become like them or understand them so well that you won’t be able to hurt them, e.g. if we empathize with Osama Bin Laden then we will lose the will to kill him.

Which is understandable, yet weak. The critics fail to grasp the possibility of Cold Compassion. Essentially, you can understand and even love a person, yet still do what is necessary to and against them. The critics of empathy are correct in saying that it is much more difficult to kill your enemy when you understand your enemy – but when has the path of the courageous ever been easy?

Yet the critics of empathy are on to something. To truly understand another person is scary. To truly understand another person requires you to become another person in a way. When my cousin Jake blogged about empathy, he dropped the common saying, "walk in another person's shoes." Which is a pretty deep concept. This saying implies actually being another person for a period of time, in order to understand them – if you’re not that other person than what would you be doing in their shoes! Shoe thief!

But if you don't like the other person, this is a scary proposition. Bending one's own will to the will of another is a self-sacrificial gesture (similar to Christ's sacrifice). Empathy as self-overcoming, other-becoming, is a form of divine violence and can be uncomfortable and even painful. For instance, there are some people with whom I am (so far) simply incapable of empathizing. It’s too painful. But that doesn't justify giving up on trying to relate to people; thereby lapsing into solipsism. Rather it only means that I need to further break down my own ego. I need to be more violent to the representations of reality that I hold so dear in order to break through into a glimpse of another person's reality.

Empathy is particularly dangerous to our ego when the people with whom we try to empathize are people that we hate. We don't want to try to understand them because we don't want to be like them. We don't want to be in their skin and we certainly don't want them under ours.

To be true to one's self and truly empathetic one must learn to be a little skizo. One must master the art of seeing from multiple perspectives at once and learning not to devalue the parallax perspective.

Empathy, like love, is as scary as it is violent. However, it is an awe-some and worthy challenge. An ethic of empathy can help you chip away at the soft weak parts of your soul, until all you have left is the hard, inner core. (This is what Nietzsche meant in Beyond Good and Evil about becoming hard). Empathy, then, despite being self-destructive is also self-creative:

Breaking down the artificial constructions I've built around myself is part of the process of becoming what I am.

[1] It's completely wrong-headed for a Christian to say, “even though I don't like so-and-so, I do love so-and-so as a child of God or because I know Christ loves her/him.” Christ said be like him, not just worship him. And when he said love one-another, he meant it as in you personally need to learn to love people – even those that despitefully use you. So it’s dumb to just claim Christ's love as your own - it's a cop-out that stunts your own progress in learning to love while on this Earth.

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