Real Empathy Is Not Deferring

Recently, in light of the Connecticut shootings, Christy Wampole wrote an article for the NYT Opinionator blogs about young men, guns, their feelings of disassociation and rage.

If the soldier has largely been replaced by the video game character and the drone, if the mothers have proven that they can raise the children alone, if the corporations are less able or willing to guarantee the possibility of upward mobility and some level of respect that comes with title, if someone else can bring home the bacon, what is left for young men?

She then relates how we (women) should show more empathy in the form of deference to these young men who are suffering from losing privilege in the world, who are feeling lost and useless.

Empathy could serve many of us: those who have not yet put themselves in the position of a person who is losing their power and those who can aim a gun at someone without imagining themselves on the other end of the barrel. For those of us who belong to a demographic that is doing increasingly better, a trained empathic reflex toward those we know to be losing for our gains could lead to a more deferential attitude on our part and could constitute an invitation for them to stay with us. To delight in their losses and aim at them the question, “How does it feel?” will only trigger a cycle of resentment and plant the seeds for vengeance. It is crucial to accommodate the pain of others.

Hugo Schwyzer wrote a good takedown of the piece, though I have to admit it was a little too sarcastic for my tastes, but something hit me about what he said and hard.

Wampole doesn’t recommend that women defer to men out of respect for masculine authority, but out of empathy for those suffering from Post-Patriarchal Depression. But why should empathy require deference rather than a passing acknowledgement that yeah, life can be confusing for many young men today? The answer lies in how Wampole — and most of the other peddlers of the myth of male malaise -– see men: fragile, inflexible, and dangerous. We don’t just defer to those we respect, after all. We defer to those we fear in hopes of placating them, and we defer to those whom we think will break (or at the least, opt out) if they aren’t given a steady flow of reassurance that they’re still needed.

Here’s the thing. Real empathy doesn’t mean deferring, because deferring (and then managing the emotions of others) means limiting that person’s capacity for growth while also limiting your own. Real empathy means acknowledging real pain in the other, helping and yes, challenging where truly useful, and allowing that person to grow for real, even if the growth is hard. If the result of sharing power means to these men “losing privilege” and then that means violence, we have a much bigger problem then deferring to men.

We need to work harder on the whole system that trains all of us to believe that some have power and some do not, and that there is always a scarcity of power, rather than a world wherein we all can collaborate and support each other. To that extent, women (all of us no matter gender or race or orientation) are in that system of dominance and also need to look at ourselves and how we enable and collude with the system, disallowing others to grow, and draining ourselves in the process. The system is big, so big. I feel these things are all just symptoms of the biggest oppression.

But, then what? What of the violence as a reaction to the loss? To the shame and fear?

This remark of Wampole’s sticks in my head;

“To delight in their losses and aim at them the question, “How does it feel?” will only trigger a cycle of resentment and plant the seeds for vengeance. It is crucial to accommodate the pain of others.”

I agree with everything she is saying except the word “accommodate.”

They have pain. So do we. Pain, shame, and the violence it engenders is not limited to a race, or a sex, or an orientation. It’s something that affects us all. But why do the oppressed have to, according to Merriam Webster, make room for and adapt ourselves to their pain? So they won’t shoot us?

Seriously? Cause that seems like blackmail.

We need to see their pain. We need to understand it. But they need to see and understand ours. And they (whoever they are) need to work on themselves and their own places of pain, even as we’ve (whoever we are) have been doing that all while dancing and adapting and accommodating them. This goes for race, class, sex, you name it.

Meanwhile, let’s really look at our culture and shame. Our culture and self violence, anger and how those things are connected. Here are ample links on shame, research on shame and a great article on war and emotion and hypermasculine voices.

Deferring isn’t empathy. And it isn’t working, not for any of us. But neither does snark and sarcasm, not matter how good it feels. Because yeah, it does cause shame in others which only keeps the cycle going. Solving this is going to take real work, real compassion and real empathy to connect our way through the shifts that must come if we are to survive as a species on this very lonely planet.

Cause power, dominance, and control aren’t working all that well for us.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Real Empathy Is Not Deferring

  1. lisahickey

    Hi Julie,

    You who has “instinctual empathy” for others, you make it look easy!

    My view is that feeling words that involve more than one person need an action, not just an internal feeling. So, for instance, for me, love for another person isn’t something you can do all by yourself in your room. Without action that involves the other person, there is no impact. In the case of love, I think the action can be “movement towards mutual joy and well-being.” For, forgiveness, I believe you need to take steps towards mutual reconciliation. You can’t forgive someone who is dead. You can only let go of your own anger towards them.

    So, for empathy, what then is the action? I *completely* agree it’s not deferrence. That makes no logical sense to me. Nor does the phrase “accomodate their pain.” i don’t even know what that means.

    What does make sense to me is if we look at empathy as “a movement towards mutual understanding.” It’s not “I feel your pain based on my own experience”. It’s “I feel your pain because there are things about my worldview and my communication with you to also see *your* worldview.” And by continuing to hold both views and work towards deeper understanding, we can *act* with empathy. And you are right, it has nothing to do with deference.

    Acting with empathy might be as simple as asking questions. It might be offering your view of the world that coincides closest with there’s. It might be giving the other person a story. But it is not “feeling” empathy, it is truly connecting with the other person with actions that lead to understanding. Looked at through that lens, “I feel your pain” doesn’t mean nearly as much as “I understand your pain based on all I know about you and all I know about me.”

    Julie, I was not being flip by saying you have “instinctual empathy.” You have it because you take those actions all the time. You practice empathy in everything you do.

  2. Pingback: Men Deserve Real Empathy, Not Deference — The Good Men Project

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