On Empathy

By Adam Mudman Bezecny

By no means will this be an easy article to read. It was not easy to write, because it deals with a problem which is easy to dismiss—for many of us, it is an invisible issue. Yet, to me, the fact that the issue is easy to dismiss, that it is invisible to so many, only solidifies the gravity of the situation.

           

To talk about the problem of empathy in the United States, we first need to have a working definition of what empathy is. Merriam-Webster puts empathy as, “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also: the capacity for this” (emphasis mine). Their web page on it describes the difference between empathy and sympathy, with sympathy usually being more distant. One can sympathize with Communism, for example, but one would empathize with a friend going through a bad breakup. What's more is that empathy is implicitly a skill, or action: it is the ability to cultivate the capacity for feeling another's pain vicariously. This crossing of empathy as a feeling into an action is more tied into another word they contrast with empathy, compassion. Compassion is defined as the desire to relieve the pain that one feels in another. All three of these words are tied together but empathy is sort of a bridge-word between them; it is a more personal version of sympathy, as compassion is, but it is also more a state of being than an action. Empathy puts a personal, emotional stake on the suffering of another, and it is the root by which compassionate action arises.

           

By that definition, then, Americans have a problem with empathy. This manifests most obviously within our present political situation—it becomes increasingly challenging, day by day, to argue that Donald Trump, and many of the people who are affiliated with him, are empathetic and compassionate human beings. Trump calls Mexicans drug dealers and rapists, but when he is being more general, he relies on pettier terms, dismissing his opponents as “losers” and “lowlifes” and other schoolyard insults. Aside from the more obvious aspects of these accusations—which are patently slanderous when it comes to matters of race—they are tied in with a particular aversion to empathy which Trump's rhetoric and platform thrive on. When he calls people “losers,” it is an uncomplicated insult. It is an insult which is meant to be self-referential, as it falls apart if you try to prod into it. Yet those who endorse Trump and the language he employs, and who use it themselves when describing Trump's political opponents (and their own), do not dismantle this simple language. They do not challenge how, exactly, the people Trump opposes are “losers.” What are they losing at? What are the stakes of this game they're losing in—i.e. why does it matter that they're losers? Why should we condemn them morally for that? In politics, accusations are serious, because they decide the fate of offices and consequently the shape of administrations. Yet it is the same paucity of empathy that allows people to avoid engaging with Trump's language that caused them to vote for someone who would say such things to begin with. Trump uses inflammatory, “mean” language, which is testament enough of his lack of empathy, but people also had to vote him in. Trump is a reflection of a larger problem which is spread throughout our voter base, one which causes people to close their minds to the complication of things like the situation in Mexico, which does actually sometimes produce drug dealers and rapists, like basically all countries on Earth. It's our avoidance of looking into why people turn to drug dealing and rape—and also into the fact that Mexicans are victimized by those things too—that we fail, and that our empathy fails.

           

I have only opened with a conservative example because the example of Trump is the most pressing modern instance of an American afflicted with low empathy. However, I would not have begun writing this essay if I had not been disgusted over the failure on behalf of liberals in the case of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) bills which passed through Congress recently. These bills have resulted in many private institutions such as Skype, Google, and Amazon infringing on the rights of their customers; Skype has banned swearing and nudity, which negatively impacts far-flung details of life as video game streaming (a source of income for many) and long-distance relationships. Google has raided and frozen email accounts in a violation of rights to privacy. Amazon has delisted and disabled reviews on erotic titles as well as many romance titles, which will put the writers of those books out of a job. Each of these decisions can and have been defended as being the rights of these private companies, but as dependency on—and indeed enjoyment of—those services increases alongside the popularity of those brands and platforms, it falls to the empathy of those corporations to follow what their customers want and indeed perhaps need. But the democratization of corporate structures is a different matter: my point is meant to be that these private decisions that will affect the economic well-being of the lives of thousands if not tens of thousands of people would not be happening were it not for the fact that an overwhelming majority of representatives on both sides of the political spectrum chose to avoid empathizing with sex workers and, indeed, with the very victims of sex trafficking whom they wanted to protect. They ignored research on sex work and sex trafficking alike, and conflated the two without care. In the end the Senate passed the bills 97-2. Not a single email, petition, or social media viral post came my way in protest, save for the ones that came far too late, which were usually in the form of articles or tweets penned by sex workers themselves. It was a situation that I myself have experienced as a trans person, when I've been in a situation where literally the only other people who've cared are other trans people. I suspect, admittedly without evidence, that social media algorithms may have served a role in preventing me from seeing what posts there may have been, when I had a chance to prevent the bill from speeding on its way to Trump's desk, but all of this points to one thing: we have an emotional blindspot when it comes to those who make their income through sex. And socially speaking, these blindspots of empathy become spots of cruelty by their mere existence. They cannot exist idly; by existing passively they continuously spawn action that inflicts damage on the livelihoods and rights of real people.

           

It's actually good that I've cited the FOSTA/SESTA example, because it does deal with a truly bipartisan issue. There is inadequate defense of sex workers on all sides of this country's political spectrum, and there is also a lack of eagerness to weigh the idea of universal human rights against the rights of a private corporation. We still hold back our empathy for people who are affiliated with consensual sexual activity, despite the fact that consensual, regulated sex work is actually an antithesis to sex trafficking. If people have the ability to screen and hand-pick their clients for sex work, thus keeping themselves safe from abusive or unhealthy clients, and the same technology also allows them to retain financial independence, keeping them out the hands of a pimp—this is now a safe, private enterprise which need not concern those who don't want to think about it. If such enterprises were to replace the sex work market entirely, then nonconsensual sex trafficking would be outcompeted. Now, a lot of you may not believe that it's someone else's right to use their body as they desire. In the interest of empathy, and using it as a solution to unfurling issues like these, I encourage you to ask why. If you feel that it leads to the degradation of society—how? Cite examples, and cite several of them. You wouldn't want someone else to tell you what to do with your body, why would you do it to a stranger?

           

Empathy is asking questions—and caring about those questions. It is like a spiritual exercise: forgetting the self. Until you do forget yourself, you will never ask the right questions, you will never listen at the right times, and you will never make progress. We will never make progress. That so many people can ignore these issues is a sign of privilege; it's not something making them worthy of hate, it's just a factor that helps explain the issue.

           

Like I said, this is hard to write. I suspect I'm coming across as truly condescending, which doesn't help my cause of trying to improve empathy. I see a therapist for my depression and anxiety, and one of our long-term projects has been an exploration of my own empathy to grapple with my problems with the lack of empathy I see around me. Through this, I am understanding how complicated empathy can be, and as such I am becoming more forgiving of what I see in others. But again, were it not for what I've seen in my time in this country, I would not feel the need to write this. There is still a problem, even besides the complications of being human. Either I am wrong in what I see, or what I see is wrong. Even if it is not a problem confined to this country, I have to consider what this means for humanity, that we act like this. It has presented me with the serious question of who is “right” in the end: the idealists, or the cynics? It's certainly not that simple of a fight, but if you think about it, we are either a species of hope, or we are doomed to wallow in our own bigotries until we go extinct. The FOSTA/SESTA example is only a small part of the giant umbrella of problems that really does affect all of us. It hits at people of color, disabled people, LGBT folk, low-income people, and women harder because objectively historical systems affect them the most; but the damage is universal even if it comes in degrees. Trump's platform exists because white people think we receive an unequal share of empathy in this world. And we do. But so do the people who Trump claims are responsible for white people's lack of received empathy.

           

In order to start circling where our universal problems come from, I want to return to FOSTA/SESTA and how it caused private companies to change how their services worked and who could use them for what purposes. People oppose the idea that companies should have ignored or even resisted the upcoming legal changes that would affect them, because upholding “human rights” in the abstract is not their goal. Their goal is to provide the common good of goods and services, along with jobs that allow people to, you know, keep themselves alive. That means they have to follow the law so they aren't subjected to legal proceedings that could shut them down and thus cut off those jobs, goods, and services. One could easily argue that if clients want to advertise sex work or sell erotic books, there are other platforms for that. That those platforms are less popular and thus harder to promote (while also lacking many of the higher-end financial security features of more popular services) is hardly the fault of those businesses.

           

Isn't it?

           

Here we have an instance where a market has effectively been destroyed. Yes, there are still platforms to publish sexual content. Yes, you can still market them even if Google shoves down or erases your listing. But the objective fact is that the available share has become smaller due to increased job difficulty leading ultimately to customer inconvenience. By making the decisions it has regarding pornography, Amazon has chosen the financial futures of clients who were effectively though not de facto dependent on their services. In a free society, the answer to an industry being artificially blasted out like this should not be, “Just get a new job.” Amazon has made a decision that affects a global literary market but which ultimately only benefits itself. It did so with the power guaranteed to it by its financial gravity, which, to the grand majority of us, is impossible to replicate and therefore challenge for ourselves. Amazon exists in a unique situation, where they do not need to consider the empathy of their actions—they will profit and prosper without the money they’ll lose on their decision. They are not democracies, and yet people put more faith in them than in the governmental entities which are legally bound to abide by the democratic process. The government, in the form which we must bring it to, must be empathetic; it must constantly service the needs of the people, and it cannot do that without empathy. Businesses are bound exclusively to their private needs, whether that's their employees, the generation of a product or service—or, if we are being frank, to profits. You need to make money to continue functioning in business—but there is no end to progress, in business and anywhere else. Businesses as they exist today always need more, and there's always ever so much to go around. This leads to distortions of scale in how ordinary people view morality as it fits into class structures, as their class brackets shrink as money disproportionately goes to the top. We can see the strain on empathy in a common-enough household conversation.

           

Recently, I was talking with my parents, who ended up becoming rather expressively upset at hearing about someone stealing a small amount of candy from a convenience store. I brought up my dad's oft-referenced point of billionaires hiding their money in off-shore tax shelters, arguing that was a more severe form of stealing. If someone steals candy, it means they want candy and have no money. There are greater rights guaranteed to human beings than having candy; indeed, one could argue it is a great infringement of the rights of others to simply steal that candy rather than earn it with money from work, or at the very least, buying it with EBT. This argument is valid in a broad sense, because candymakers deserve to be paid for their work and therefore in an ideal state their candy should be paid for, but this is linked in with a dismissal of factors that push people outside that system. Disabled people, children, the elderly, and felons either can't work at all or have extreme difficulty finding and holding jobs. In my experience this is seen as acceptable. After all, children, old people, criminals, and disabled people are all relative minorities in society. Together, however, they make up a unit which, while enduring unique individual struggles, is singularly ignored and victimized by our present mode of society.

           

And yet for all the possibilities present, my parents' immediate reaction, along the reaction of many people I've met, was to morally condemn the thief. The girl in the incident in question looked like she did not have an easy life. Her face was dirty and her clothes were worn out. She looked too young to work. I wonder if the victimhood I've projected on her was real, or if her real victimization is that by going out in public, she became part of an argument, and now this essay: a symbol, stripped of her personhood by her appearance and for the minor crime she committed.

           

No one is immune. The more you think about oppression, the more you realize it's systemic, and how deeply it is without empathy to anybody. That is the exact vein that Trump tapped when he ran: white people in this country are oppressed, but we've been convinced that the oppression of any other group is a distraction from our pain. Instead, we should be focusing on a twofold approach. We need to fix economic disparity; and we need to listen to minorities with a recognition of the fact that we have had an unfair socioeconomic advantage over them because of corrupt systems.

           

These are simple requests, and I can assure you that if you work towards them, we will all benefit.

           

This is the “secret” to defeating white supremacists as well, who threaten the white people they claim to protect just as they threaten people of color. They function on division, and on a lack of empathy. By building a fairer economy, one with less of a sense of oppression, and normalizing what we haven't normalized thus far—genuine compassion to people of color—we will shove them back and stop them from hurting more innocent people.

           

The phrase I run into time and time again—in my day job, in my publishing career, in my political discussions—is, “Life's not fair.” No. I reject that notion. That is a cynical concept. That is a hopeless concept. Furthermore, and perhaps more depressingly, it is a post-historical concept, suggesting that humanity is now at its apex, that this is the best of all possible worlds, and if you died despite your best efforts it was just because “Life's not fair.” Is it a way to seal yourself off from the fact that you might be next? Ask yourself. Be empathetic to yourself.

           

There are those who are raised to be cruel to themselves, and that in turn makes them close off empathy to others. There's too much hurt inside. I've been there. I realized I was transgender relatively late in life, so I can confidently say I lived as a man before realizing I was much, much better off living as a woman. I felt the pain that patriarchy can bring: the constant desire to be tough. To never cry. To be good at sports, and to feel excluded if you aren't interested in such. And to realize in retrospect how many times your bad or even unacceptable behaviors were excused just because you were a guy. That is pain, and if it is not pain, then it will cause pain for someone else, at some point down the line. We are cruel to men—and what a lot of people don't realize is that this doesn't mean we excuse them from being cruel to women.

           

We are at a point where empathy, including and perhaps especially self-empathy, is hard to conjure up. Perhaps it's always been that way. That doesn't mean that we can't change. We are the masters of our own lives, and if we don't like the fact that “Life's not fair,” we can change that. Maybe we can't stave off death from old age, or prevent people from being struck by lightning every now and again—which we impose qualities of fairness onto—but we can be fairer to ourselves and to those around us. It is a choice we always have. To say otherwise is honestly a shallow rejection of what our species has done and can do. There must be hope, and to have hope we must have kindness.

           

I wish to say now that all the gratitude I can summon goes to those who do commit themselves to listening and to being kind, and to questioning themselves and the world around them. You are the signs that we are not hopeless—that someday, as naive as it sounds, that oppression can end. People like Trump, who deliberately go against kindness, and reject chances to listen and ask relevant questions, are temporary.

           

But I beg you to consider what might arise if they are not. And I beg you to know always that you aren't better off for not caring, and that ignoring that will not help you.

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