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The issue with empathy

How to understand what you haven't experienced

To empathize is to imagine yourself within another’s experience.    

Today we use empathy to navigate each other and the world. Empathy demands we enter another’s headspace. But how can you step inside without prior experience?   

Elaine Scarry, an academic and literature professor argues it’s difficult. “The way we act  toward ‘others’ is shaped by the way we imagine them,” says Scarry. Imagining  someone’s inner feelings is like a puzzle for the brain. You cannot envision the picture on  the box, only the individual pieces and mash together ones that don’t fit — creating  judgment. Creating false definitions. This inability is magnified when the person is a  “stranger or foreigner,” says Scarry. The more detached we are, the harder it is to pull  people together.   

Shared similarities  

Husserl’s theory of empathy — a scholarly claim for empathy in practice — says  there must be a sort of bodily similarity between oneself and the ‘other’ to enable one to  empathize with the other in the first place. Shared similarities are a uniting factor. For  example, Jewish and African people can unite from and empathize with each other from the  experience of persecution.    

As Claudia Rankine, Jamaican poet, writer and author said in the New York Times, “Though the white liberal imagination likes to feel temporarily bad about Black  suffering, there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of   knowing that as a Black person you can be killed for simply being Black.”   That’s because to empathize is to feel someone’s emotion from a shared or  similar experience. You cannot have empathy unless you have seen the thing that is  causing the person to feel. For example, I cannot understand the life of a refugee.   

Refugees migrate to countries bringing what they can carry upon their backs with them.  They tread along waterways and roads without direction, only the hope of a safer  beginning. I have never had this experience. The home I grew up in still exists. My  childhood memories bring me happy glimpses of a past I’m fortunate to have been given.   

Therefore my ability to empathize with an immigrant is compromised. I never will  undergo displacement in the way an immigrant may have in their life, creating a  challenge for my imagination.    

Choose reflection  

When we cannot conceptualize the experience of others, we’re faced with a  choice. We can choose reflection and say, “I can’t even understand the way you feel, that  must be hard” and use misunderstanding to bridge the gap of understanding. Instead,  when an individual feels this way, they retreat. When something gets hard we give up.    

Giving up the attempt, to understand differences, has become a source for political conflict, racism, misogyny, sexism, homophobia and everywhere in between.   

Maxime Bernier, political leader of the People’s Party of Canada, known for his  anti-immigration policies, cannot empathize with immigrants. He’s never experienced  their journey. He never felt their struggles. He’s never felt their pain. Of course he can’t empathize with that person. Of course he can’t understand everything they’ve been  through. He could attempt to understand, but Bernier hasn’t even  tried. We let the fact of inability to understand stop us, instead of letting it propel us  somewhere forward.   

Set aside judgements  

To empathize is to set aside judgments and consider how I could put on someone  else’s shoes. We need to detach from ourselves to understand each other. The things that  make us unique are culture. The lack of will to try and understand these differences  disrupts the beauty of civilization.  It’s what’s started wars, what’s split populations in  half, and prevented us from seeing the bigger picture.    

We are all humans born from the same place — earth. We share more in common  than what separates us. Why do we let separations define perception? What connects us  despite decades of difference? Empathy. Empathy is a search for connection and a  pathway to understanding.     

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Gabbie Douglas

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