Expectations of empathy

The more I think about it, I am increasingly convinced I am correct about empathy among people with atypical identities. That is, if you identify in an atypical way, the burden is on you to have empathy for, and be tolerant of, the majority who are unaccustomed to such an identity–not the reverse.

Today I was getting coffee and overheard two young people–a male and a female, who must have been 18 or 19 years old–talking about their recently-concluded high school experience. It appeared they had gone to high school together, but I gathered they had only become friends recently, perhaps after graduation. The male’s vocal affect suggested he was gay. For the sake of clarity let’s call him Tim, and his female friend Becky.

Tim said he had longed for more self-esteem in high school, and recounted to Becky a story from his senior year art class in which he finally got to attain some confidence–by telling somebody off:

In the story, a female student–let’s call her Sarah–was critiquing an artwork that depicted a trans individual. In the process of critiquing it, Sarah mentioned that she didn’t know if the subject was a boy or girl.

(Becky gasped. Tim continued.)

The whole class then got silent. Sensing his moment to shine, Tim spoke up and told Sarah: “I just want you to know, what you said was really wrong. And I’m not going to tell you why, because I don’t think I should have to.”

(Tim chortled and gleefully repeated this part of the story for Becky two or three more times, in case she hadn’t heard it. Becky couldn’t get enough.)

The rest of that day, nobody would speak to Sarah. Sarah kept asking “What did I say? What did I say?”

(Becky agreed that Sarah was shockingly tone-deaf to not understand her transgression. Beaming, Tim repeated for Becky once more what he had told Sarah.)

As Tim and Becky finished up their bubbly conversation and left in their cars, my mind raced in several directions at once: Did Tim think he had shamed Sarah into adopting a more progressive and open-minded attitude? Did Tim feel empowered and accomplished, like he was David standing up to Goliath, for having told Sarah off? Why didn’t Tim think he owed Sarah an explanation of why what she said was wrong?

To me it was evident that Tim was not concerned about converting Sarah to his way of seeing things. In his mind, there was no argument: Sarah’s remark was simply unacceptable, maybe even for reasons Tim can’t articulate but is nevertheless sure of.

From this I know Tim’s views on trans-related etiquette are essentially a mystical religious belief. And, in the distorted reality of his 2016 or 2017 high-school classroom, his religious beliefs are predominant. Unbaptized heathens like Sarah are safe targets for practicing ritual beheadings and building up one’s confidence.

But Tim lives in the lower Midwest and surely knows that his high school art classroom was a thin, delicate bubble surrounded by the Real World. In the Real World, Tim and his cult are the minority. In the real world, he is the minority and really does owe Sarah an explanation, and ought to try to make that explanation persuasive if he wants to advance his views.

To do this, he will need to empathize with Sarah instead of demanding that Sarah empathize with him. Clearly, his high school experience did not prepare him for this task. His college experience likely will not either. On his TV, on his phone, and most places he works or hangs out at, he will be fed a steady diet of feelgood validation.

This means Tim’s reality check is going to shock him because it will likely come from a stranger and be flavored with aggression. He will likely reject it, and it will cement him further in his mystical beliefs. He will retreat further from the majority to the safety of his echo chamber–and the majority will become even more of an echo chamber as well.

It doesn’t seem to me like this has to happen, but I could be wrong. Empathy is hard, and it doesn’t stop being hard just because you’re part of a small minority.

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2 thoughts on “Expectations of empathy

  1. This was a fascinating story, and well-told, but I’m not convinced it serves to support your premise. Teenagers are all working uphill to achieve empathy, compared to, say, middle-aged persons. Living at one’s sexual peak drives us all toward “getting off” as a primary goal, an inherently selfish motive with evolutionary benefits. That biological drive, which society tries to repress, still emerges in a variety of sublimations. Gay or not, Tim was expressing his dominance in the peer hierarchy by “mansplaining” to Sarah in front of others. As you suggest, it didn’t bring her more understanding or lead to more empathy from the peer group. It achieved what Tim was after – he got off. It was to enhance HIS status, and it worked, which is why he repeated the behavior to another (so he could “get off” again).

    Empathy is a worthy goal, but I think it is an equal responsibility for all individuals to work toward, because it is beneficial to every individual and all groups. I believe empathy grows naturally from accumulating a wider base of knowledge and experience over time, so it becomes easier as we age. It also helps that we aren’t as ruled or driven by our hormones after 30. There’s more brain space for philosophy, and we tend to grant more time for contemplation and restructuring our lives toward spiritual generosity and empathy.

    I’m in my 60s. No, I haven’t “seen it all”, but I think I’ve been through more (compared to my younger self), and it automatically increased my empathy. I see my own triumphs and tragedies in the lives of others more easily. It allows me to identify with their situations, needs and desires better than before.

    • I agree with everything you said. This story wasn’t the best possible example to support my premise–you’re right about adolescence and the need to “get off”–but I do think it supports it. Most adults struggle with empathy too, and not for fundamentally different reasons from teenagers.

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