The Case for Empathy

I think an awful lot about the idea of showing love to our oppressors and those who tend to oppose us most. The concept’s become a point of contention in what I’ll call the social justice community — the community of those who are engaged in dialogue around oppression and privilege — and the conversation has ramped up since (of course) the election.

I have said very little on the matter because I am afraid of the kind of backlash my words will receive. It can be scary to align with social justice, and to be passionate about the fight for it, and not agree with every single idea that’s being discussed. There’s a sort of viciousness that exists in this community, and it’s scary to stand up in the face of it. But as I said in my last post, I am no longer allowing myself to be silent, to walk around guilty and complicit.

Here is the argument:  Shouting down those who disagree with you, be those disagreements large or small, will make them disagree with you more.

It’s very simple, and it’s not a matter of whether a person’s perspectives are abhorrent or self-defensive or riddled with logical holes. It’s not a matter of who has more privilege in the situation and who has the responsibility to listen and learn. It’s a matter of human psychology. If someone is yelled at for the things they say or think, not only are they less likely to listen to the person shouting, they’re more likely to entrench and start reinforcing their own opinions.

Some people will take cool down time, maybe undig their heels a little, come back to what’s been said and think about it. But, due to a lack of capacity for self-reflection (which people can’t really be blamed for; they were never given the right tools in the first place), many people won’t — and not only will they dig their heels in deeper, but they’ll turn to the people in their lives, their families, friends, coworkers, and children, and begin to discuss why, in their view, they were right and the person they were arguing with was wrong.

There is the very valid argument that it is not the responsibility of the oppressed person to be nice to their oppressors. It’s the idea that someone is standing on top of your head, and you’re not going to say, “Hey, excuse me, could you please get off my head?” They’re hurting you badly and making it impossible for you to move. This is not the time for politeness that they will probably just brush off anyway. It could be best to just push them violently off your head.

But it’s not a perfect analogy. In some ways, it nullifies the actual existence of the person doing the standing. They may not understand that their standing on your head is causing you pain, or they’ve heard that it is but they can’t actually see that they are, in fact, doing it. In that case, shouting at them to get off may not in fact actually make them move.

Pushing them violently off could hurt them, and while their pain from that can’t and shouldn’t be weighed against the pain you were feeling while they were, you know, standing on your head, they might nevertheless be hurt and not understand why you were doing this to them. They might get some of their friends to help them stand back up so they can get back on your head, all along wondering why you’ve been so angry with them.

If you push them off and kill them, a bunch of others might come along and pile on top of your head on purpose because you’ve ended the life of someone they love. All the while you’re frustrated, saying what seems obvious: “But you should be able to see that standing on someone’s head is not okay.”

But oppressive behaviors are learned behaviors. Even those who have unlearned as many as they can will still be complicit as long as they have privilege. Helping people unlearn those behaviors helps, and it can be done by anyone when we can start by validating others’ pain. And I want to emphasize that pain and life experiences can be validated without validating beliefs.

Back to human psychology: People are most likely to respond well to us when we listen and validate where they are coming from. Again, it’s not a matter of whether what they actually believe is morally reprehensible to us — it’s a matter of how our brains work and how we function on an emotional level.

Here’s excerpts from an apt Twitter thread that covers the issue from the perspective of someone whose mind did eventually change:

The vast majority of people want to do good by others. There are many who fail because they were never given the tools to do so. For so many of those people, the pain in that failure runs deep, in ways they aren’t aware of. Repression is a real problem, and people who lash out the most are often those who carry the most dissonance and pain inside. Shouting at them makes them recede further away.

And deciding to cut people whose perspectives we see as fundamentally terrible out of our lives doesn’t stop those people from existing, and teaching those perspectives to others around them, to their children. That, perhaps, is the biggest critique I hold on the dialogue I so often see in the social justice community — it ignores the actual existence of the people who believe in and do these things that harm us so, so deeply.

A question arises for people when they feel they’re being shouted at, especially in regards to those who are interested in social justice and who do want to do right by this community.

“If I am not welcome here: Where, then, should I go? What, then, should I do?”

The options are to become silent and, in being silent, fail to promote social justice; or to return to or find a community where they feel their voices can be heard without fear of backlash and judgment. Either option perpetuates oppression.

All of this has happened to me, or to people I know. It continues to happen for me. I should not have to be afraid of those I seek to stand in solidarity with; and those who seek to stand in solidarity with me should not have to be afraid of me.

Here’s another apt Tweet on this, linking to an article that gave perspectives from social scientists and research professionals regarding how social movements are successful.


It is valid and reasonable to be angry, and hurt, and to want to engage with others in ways that hold them completely accountable for the things they do that cause that pain. But we will continue to isolate others and push them away if we do not acknowledge their pain — even if it seems trivial in the face of ours. Isolating others this way can factor into things occurring such as backlash against “political correctness,” people making fun of trigger warnings and safe spaces, and the election of Donald Trump (recognizing, of course, that he did not win the popular vote).

It starts with empathy, validation, listening. It starts with trust and love. It doesn’t mean winning everyone over all the time. But it means giving them a chance to exist, and going from there.

Note: I do not discount the validity of violent resistance when necessary. If someone is standing on your head causing you pain, that’s one thing. If they’re pressing a power drill into your scalp, grinning and prepared to split your skull wide open, that’s another. I do believe, though, that violence and aggression is not the only response, and certainly not the most valid one in the majority of situations. 


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