The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Tag: Empathy

I Suffered, Therefore So Must Others

I want to expand on this idea, ably put my Amal El-Mohtar here:

This idea seems right: the first is better than the second.

But the actual correct stance is:

This bad thing never happened to me BUT I can imagine how horrible it would be, so I want to make sure it doesn’t happen to other people.

None of us, no matter how bad our lives are, have experienced all the horrible things that can happen. Conservatives are notorious for being terrible except about one thing, you dig and it’s “My child got esophagal cancer so now I champion that,” OR “Someone I care about was shot with an assault rifle so now I’m against that.”

Imaginative empathy allows us to imagine being a blood diamond slave in the Congo, or there during a school shooting, or suffering from grinding poverty even if we’ve had good lives. It allows us to be disgusted and horrified by people cleaning out sewers by hand (Indians euphemistically call this “manual scavenging”) or what it’s like to suffer from anti-black racism or caste oppression. We don’t need to have suffered something either to say, “Others should suck it up,” or “Others shouldn’t have to go through what I did.”

This isn’t a call to removing all risk and stress from life. Not all unpleasant events are bad. The general rule, now well-supported by various studies, is that short term stress is good, and chronic stress is bad.

When I went to school, we had exam hell week: one before Christmas, one at the end of the year. The final exam week usually determined 50 percent of our marks.

(I am fundraising to determine how much I’ll write this year. If you value my writing and want more of it, please consider donating.)

This arrangement made for “good stress:” it was short-term and made you learn how to take high-impact tests. I’ve never feared a test since then: I assume I can pass any academic test, if given enough time to study, and my idea of enough time is a lot less than most people’s.

We don’t want to protect people from good stress — from short term challenges that teach them what they can do.

Chronic stress or traumatic stress, however, we do want to avoid. No one is improved by rape (prison administrators take note). No one is improved by being poor for years or even months on end. No one is improved by chronic hunger or fear.

The larger questions are why some people are unable to employ imaginative empathy: Why they must experience hell first-hand to realize “Oh! Hell is bad!” and why some can’t extrapolate this to “All hells are bad.”

Life is better with happy, healthy people. Heaven and Hell are both other people: if you’re surrounded by happy, loving people, odds are you’ll be happy. If you don’t start that way, you’ll almost certainly wind up that way. We shouldn’t want our fellow citizens to be subject to damaging long-term stress of traumatic events simply because we have to live with them.

The exception, alas, is that some people can’t learn that something is bad if it doesn’t happen to them. Their depraved indifference is a danger to everyone around them and a challenge to ethics. The people who need to be poor or spend time disabled or seriously sick are the people who think it’s no big deal. Some people, it seems, can only learn that “Hell is bad” if they or perhaps someone they love, spends time in Hell.

El-Mohtar’s tweet, of course, was about the possibility of Biden using an executive order to forgive $50k of student debt.

The good way to do it would be to get rid of the bankruptcy bill Biden pushed that made it impossible for student loans to be discharged in bankruptcy, which would sort the situation out fast (it is NEVER a good idea to make it so that creditors do not have to worry about non payment. NEVER.)

But Biden probably won’t have control of Congress, and this is better than doing nothing, even if some people who have paid off student loans feel it is “unfair.” It was unfair they had usurious loans, but just because they suffered doesn’t mean others should.

The best solution, of course, would be to go back to 60s-style universities where tuition is either cheap or non-existent. The cost is a lot less than any of the repeated bailouts of rich people and could be made even lower by doing something about university admin bloat (that’s an entire other article I may write one day) and a more complete solution would be to do something about credential inflation: Most jobs don’t need a degree and the idea that they do today is absurd.

But what Biden can do is forgive $50K with an admin order and he should. It’s a good thing he can do, and if it doesn’t relieve the suffering of people in the past, well, hopefully you are, at least, the sort of person who doesn’t want others to suffer like you did.


Understanding Through Empathy

Having read Lance Mannion on empathy, I want to talk about what it is, and why people fear it. Empathy just means you understand what another feels.  (Or, as modern brain science and ancient common sense tells us that you “feel” what others feel.)  It’s morally neutral, but without empathy it’s very probably you can’t make it to sympathy.  Empathy is the quality that lets you “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”.

It can be used for good or evil, but it tends towards good.  Usually, if we feel someone’s pain, we don’t want to add to it, since doing so will add to our pain.  However, there’s no question that in some cases, and for some people, the pain of others is pleasurable.

Also understanding someone else is the best first step to defeating them or hurting them horribly, which is one reason why those who know us best are the ones who can hurt us the most, because they know where the tender spots and the vulnerabilities are.  The best martial artists often talk about becoming one with the person they fight and competitive athletes use empathy to crush their opponents, as do good generals.

There is no deep understanding without empathy.  If you cannot walk in another’s shoes; if you cannot feel their pains and their joys, then you do not understand them.  Period.

People fear empathy because most people can’t avoid going from empathy to sympathy and because they think that if they feel even an echo they become that person.  They think “if I understand, if I feel what a terrorist/murderer/rapist/other bad person feels, if I know why they do what they do, I am like them”. And they believe that if they feel what a bad person felt, then they will feel sympathy for that person, and they only want to feel sympathy for good people, and for victims, not for those who have done evil.  Who perhaps are evil.

They don’t want to recognize, among other things, the evil in themselves and what they have in common with those who have done evil.

Likewise empathy requires the ability to forget about yourself for a time, to lose yourself and become someone else.  That loss of self, temporary as it is, is frightening to many.

But when you fail to empathize with those you disagree with you fail to understand them.  Instead of understanding them you label them–you give them a name you think covers what they are.  So you call them a terrorist, or you call them evil, or you call them a liberal or a conservative or a nazi.  Nothing wrong with any of those words, they describe things in the world.  But if you don’t understand people you may apply the wrong word to them, or you may apply a word that covers only part of what they are.  And then they will act in ways that surprise you, because you’ve only labeled them, not understood them.

Sometimes that doesn’t matter, because they’re too weak to matter or they are too remote from you for your opinion to be of any concern.  But sometimes it does matter.  If you think all Iraqis are sand niggers who only understand force, for example, well you’re going to treat them in a certain way, aren’t you?  And if they aren’t just sand niggers who only understand force, well, maybe that’s going to backfire.  If you think a Presidential candidate is a liberal and a progressive, and give him money, time and your vote, and he isn’t, well, that has consequences, doesn’t it?  If you think that an organization as complex as Hezbollah are “just terrorists”, well, you’re going to be surprised when they don’t act like “just terrorists” most of the time and you get your ass handed to you by them.


Empathy isn’t a fuzzy virtue.  It isn’t even a virtue at all, it is an ability.  It can be used for good, or for evil.  Once you understand someone you can use that understanding to help them, to heal them, to hurt them or to destroy them.  Reject empathy and you reject understanding your fellow humans as well as you otherwise could.  In war, that can lead to defeat; in justice that can lead to injustice; and in relationships that kills love.

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