The Death of Empathy
One of the most devastating consequences of unearned privilege — both for those of us on top and, for very different reasons, those who suffer beneath — is the death of empathy.
Too many people with privileges of various kinds — based on race or gender, economic status or citizenship in a powerful country — go to great lengths not to know, to stay unaware of the reality of how so many live without our privilege. But even when we do learn, it’s clear that information alone doesn’t always lead to the needed political action. For that, we desperately need empathy, the capacity to understand the experiences — especially the suffering — of others.
Too often in this country, privilege undermines that capacity for empathy, limiting the possibilities for solidarity. Two examples from my recent experience brought this home for me.
At a Washington, DC, organizing conference on Palestine, a group of dedicated activists and academics gathered to take stock of the failure of the Oslo accords and think creatively about new directions to guarantee democracy and human rights for everyone in Israel and Palestine. Along with analysis of Israel’s continuing illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories, the participants talked about missteps in the Palestinian resistance movements as well. Such critical self-reflection is crucial if past mistakes are to be avoided in the future struggle for justice.
At the end of a tiring but productive day, a white male student from a nearby college rose during the discussion period to ask a question. He said that in his class they were being encouraged to be critical of mainstream media and the conventional wisdom, and that he wanted to practice such critical thinking skills in this context, too. He challenged the panel to come up with concrete solutions, saying smugly that it seemed the conference so far had been nothing more than a "Palestinian pity party."
Responding to the not-so-subtle racism and nationalism in such comments is always tricky, but as the only white, U.S.-born person on the panel I thought I shouldn’t leave it to others to call the student on his ugly display of privilege.
The problem with privilege, I said, is that it so often leads to incredible arrogance, the belief that one has a right to blurt out in public anything on one’s mind, no matter how uninformed or thoughtless. I pointed out to the young man that he seemed to have missed how much of the day had been devoted to careful analysis without a hint of self-pity. Perhaps his question had something to do with seeing the issue from the comfortable position of someone safe in the United States with no direct experience of the struggle and suffering of people in Palestine.
At that point, Diana Buttu, a Palestinian-Canadian lawyer now living in the West Bank, stepped in and explained what life is like in the territories. Switching gears from the legal/political analysis she had offered earlier, Buttu described the daily reality of negotiating checkpoints and Jewish-only roads just to be able to travel a few miles for work or to see friends and relatives. She described the grinding poverty of the territories, where at least half of the population is below the official poverty line. Her comments made it clear that this wasn’t about self-pity but about a deeply felt concern about injustices being perpetrated and the real effects on real people. Buttu, who pointed out that she didn’t suffer as much as others in the territories because she travels with a Canadian passport, modeled — rather than preached — empathy, and the effect was powerful. She was able to recognize that the student was young and ignorant, and that the moment called for a correction of that ignorance but with some compassion for him.
In a presentation on the feminist critique of pornography at a college, I described some of the routine body-punishing types of sex that are common, especially in the genre known as "gonzo," the most harsh and overtly cruel type of sexually explicit material. A young man from the audience waited until the rest of the folks who had questions were gone and then approached me cautiously, saying he wanted to challenge some claims I had made.
The student said that he watched gonzo pornography regularly and thought I had distorted the reality of such material. None of what he watched, he said, sounded like what I had described. "The stuff I like — it’s just movies of people who liked to party," he told me.
I asked him to tell me more about what he watched. As he talked, it became clear he was describing exactly the kind of material I had discussed, and I could see the realization emerge in him: My assessment of the rough and degrading nature of that pornography was accurate, and he had simply never recognized it. When he mentioned a type of sex he liked to watch in pornography called a DP — double penetration, in which a woman is penetrated vaginally and anally at the same time — it really started to dawn on him: In these scenes, the sex was defined by men’s sense of control over, and domination of, women.
I pressed a bit more. What kind of things did the men call the woman during this sex? I asked. As he started to reproduce some of the terms — all names meant to demean and insult women — it became impossible for him to avoid the conclusion that the pornography he had been consuming is not just sex, but sex in which men act out contempt for women.
At that point, he stammered, "But I don’t hate women. I love women. I wouldn’t use pornography like that."
That contradiction wasn’t going to be worked out in the moment. Instead, I told the student that I wasn’t arguing that he hated women but was simply pointing out he had been getting sexual pleasure from pornography that expressed hatred for women. Why had that misogyny been invisible to him? Why had he been unable to see what was happening on the screen and imagine how women might feel about such degrading treatment?
The answer is simple enough: The privileges that come with being a man in patriarchy had undermined his capacity to empathize, allowing the sexual pleasure he felt to override his humanity and making it difficult for him to put himself in the place of a woman experiencing overtly cruel and degrading treatment.
Privilege and the empathy deficit
The student at the Palestine conference lives in a country in which he has never had to pass through a checkpoint or justify himself to authorities simply because of the color of his skin, ethnicity, or citizenship. The student at my pornography presentation lives in a society in which he has never had to fear he would be the target of degrading and potentially violent sexual behavior simply because of his gender. Both had learned to think of themselves and their experience as the norm, against which the behavior of others should be judged.
How can I be so sure of that claim? Because it’s the way I was raised as a white man of European heritage with U.S. citizenship. Comfortable in my privilege, I spent much of my life wondering why so many other people who didn’t look like me complained so much. I understood there was inequality and injustice in the world, but life seemed reasonably fair to me. After all, my hard work seemed to be rewarded, which suggested to me that those not so well off should just work a little harder and stop whining.
Looking back, I can see that even though I don’t come from the wealthy sector of society, the unearned privileges that I enjoyed had diminished my capacity for empathy. I had access to lots of information, but I was emotionally underdeveloped. I could know things, but at the same time not feel the consequences of that knowledge. That meant I could avoid the difficult conclusion that would have come from a deeper knowing and feeling — that the inequality and injustice in the world was benefiting me at some level, and therefore I had a heightened obligation to confront it.
As I became politicized later in my life, I realized I not only had to learn more about the world but also had to fight to reclaim an ability to empathize. For me, that process started at the intimate level, by recognizing the misogyny and racism in the pornography I had grown up with. From there, it moved to the global, by recognizing the poverty and violence suffered by the targets of U.S. power.
The struggle to know and to feel is never-ending, because my privilege continues. The way in which privilege insulates us can’t simply be renounced and then easily transcended. For me, it takes continual effort, marked by moments of real connection with others that deepen my sense of life, as well as continued failures to empathize deeply enough that remind me of the need for humility. It is part of the endless struggle to be human in a world saturated with so much suffering.
There are two lessons in this for left/progressive political organizing.
The first involves outreach. Everyone is aware that accurate facts and a compelling logical argument are not enough to carry the day politically. But that doesn’t mean quick-hitting emotional appeals based on fear or pity are the answer. We need not simply to use emotion, but to develop collectively a deeper capacity for empathy. That alone doesn’t guarantee political victory, but it’s hard to imagine much progress without it.
Second, for those of us with unearned privilege, as we focus on outreach we have to remember to reach in as well. Privilege is insidious, and it works on us even when we think we have moved past it. When we see the ugliest expressions of that privilege in others, it’s tempting to want to distance ourselves from them, to label them as the problem and see ourselves as part of the solution. But to be effective organizers, we have to be able to practice empathy in all directions.
Looking back at the two examples, I can see that with the young man struggling with his pornography use, I had been able to connect. He was taking his first steps out of his own isolation and illusions about what kind of "party" goes on in pornography, and as my conversation with him ended I told him that I understood how difficult it can be. I gave him my card and encouraged him to contact me if I could help.
I was less successful with the student at the Palestine conference. It was appropriate to be blunt in my comments, not only to try to change him but to mark to the others in the room just how inappropriate his "pity party" remark had been. But I wanted to follow up with him after the event, to tell him that while I strongly disagreed with his comments, there was a way in which I felt he and I were part of the same struggle.
Unfortunately, the young man slipped out during the last panel and didn’t return. Maybe he had another engagement to get to, or perhaps he wanted to avoid the possibility of another confrontation. Maybe he rejected what he heard, or perhaps he went off to be alone and ponder.
Whatever his choice, I continue to ponder, to struggle, to be frustrated with the limits of others and with my own failures. And I continue to plod forward.
It is in our plodding, I believe, that we can find hope for the future. We don’t have to be perfect. We just have to keep trying to connect in a world that gives us many ways to disconnect if we choose.
Each day we struggle to empathize, we hold onto our humanity.
Each day we stay connected — to ourselves and each other — is another plodding step forward.
ROBERT JENSEN is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the board of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. He is the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity. He can be reached at email@example.com.