by Hari Ziyad
noun em·pa·thy \ˈem-pə-thē\
: the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else’s feelings
Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Within 20 seconds, a bullet had sailed through Sam Dubose’s skull and his lifeless body accelerated his car toward nowhere in particular – a ghost not yet aware of no longer being alive, still desperate to run away.
I wanted to run away, too. I felt something similarly violent shoot through my head, though tears, rather than blood, soaked my face.
This was sometime around mid-afternoon on July 30th, when officer Ray Tensing was indicted for the fatal shooting of an unarmed, black Dubose, a shooting that Tensing claimed was justified because he had supposedly been dragged by Dubose’s car, a claim later proved to be false when the video of Dubose’s senseless killing was released.
I empathized with Dubose. The countless black men and women whom have been killed by police this year alone remind me just how quickly my life can be plundered as well.
Perhaps the grand jury also empathized with him. Perhaps that is why they were able to indict Tensing when we know police who kill rarely face consequences.
Perhaps empathy will rightly lock him away for murder.
But empathy did not save Dubose’s life.
“How do we start? We start with education (…) learn as much as you can about another person,” Caitlyn Jenner instructed as she accepted the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPY’s this year for her decision to publicly come out as transgender and use her platform to shine a light on transgender issues. Her opinion on the proper starting point is a common one in the fight for social justice: simply educate those who belong to an oppressive group on the plight of those who are oppressed, show them the pain of the oppressed, the struggles and triumphs, reassert that their humanity is no different than their oppressor’s humanity, and viola – the oppressor is forced to empathize with them, leading to an urge to alleviate their hardships.
But the belief that empathy can solve the world’s ills relies on the idea that we are all similar enough that someone else’s pain can be understood through the understanding of our own.
What happens when we do not understand our own pain? What happens when we really are different, and substantially so? What happens when those differences cannot be understood? Or, at least, what happens before those differences can be understood?
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In The Baby and The Well: The Case Against Empathy, Sam Bloom writes, “Empathy has some unfortunate features – it is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate. We’re often at our best when we’re smart enough not to rely on it.” Empathy is inherently limited in that it only goes as far as one can imagine, and one’s imagination is necessarily bound by their experiences.
Relying on empathy almost always places the onus on the marginalized. They must reiterate how they are – and then be – much more like those who are not marginalized in order for their causes to matter. They must prove their pain in a way that their oppressors are willing to acknowledge. Sam Dubose’s head must be blown off publicly and violently, and those who desperately want to be on the officer’s side must judge his action to be one of unequivocal cruelty.
As soon as the issues of the marginalized begin to harm or even just make uncomfortable those who aren’t marginalized, they lose power.
Appealing to the empathy of those who are not marginalized centers their understanding at the expense of the lives of the oppressed. It is why, as Bloom writes, “When (Natalee) Holloway disappeared, the story of her plight took up far more television time than the concurrent genocide in Darfur.” Relying on empathy alone will always make the causes of those more relatable to society at large more salient.
Relying on empathy means that, instead of fighting for homeless LGBTQ youth, who make up a devastating proportion of all homeless youth, organizations representing LGBTQ communities invested much more time and energy fighting for same-sex marriage, a right that amounts to little more than permission to assimilate into the dominant family structure. Queer and trans youth struggling with issues far more severe but also more foreign are ignored.
It means that the world will come to the understanding of trans issues through the lens of Caitlyn Jenner, a white Republican, rather than through the lens of those who deal with the most deadly effects of transantagonism, poor trans people of color.
It means, having no idea what it feels like to be a different gender than the one the world placed onto me, I would never be able to give trans issues the importance they deserve. As I held tightly onto the idea that understanding someone’s experience was the most important factor in respecting them, the lack of understanding led to me dismissing entire existences. It was a reason to laugh at, deride and ignore trans and gender-nonconforming individuals for much of my youth. It was why I enacted not just emotional transantagonistic violence, but physical violence, too. It was why in high school I encouraged a friend to fight a student I thought was male but dressed in women’s clothes.
Relying on empathy means black people faced with horrific levels of police brutality must make white people “feel our pain.” It forces us to stream the bodies of our dead sons and daughters on a loop. It requires there to be dead sons and daughters in the first place. It always demands more spectacles of pain.
As an empathic person, I understand the power and beauty of empathy. It was Emmett Till’s deformed countenance that first sparked my passion for racial justice, and maybe Sam Dubose’s murder might do the same for someone else. It was seeing the abuse my sisters experienced that was the impetus to commit to combating patriarchy. But I will never be Emmett, and a white man will never be Sam Dubose. I will never be my sisters, and if their only worth is how much of me I can see in them, there is far too much of them that is worthless. Just imagine how much more I could have accomplished in the quest to dismantle patriarchal systems had it not taken me having to feel through my sisters to honor their experiences?
Empathy is a tool that helps us to become better people, but it is only that. Empathy is not our saving grace.
Bloom writes, “Our best hope for the future is not to get people to think of all humanity as family—that’s impossible. It lies, instead, in an appreciation of the fact that, even if we don’t empathize with distant strangers, their lives have the same value as the lives of those we love.” As marginalized people, most of our pain can’t be felt by anyone else. It is impossible to share it all, and both sadistic and sadomasochistic to try. Instead, we should focus on reinforcing the necessity of feeling one’s own humanity and respecting the humanity of others without the condition of familiarity. Empathy won’t save us. How we show care despite its absence might.
Hari Ziyad is a writer with a passion for gender/queer/race issues. He runs the blog RaceBaitR, and his work has been featured on Gawker, Out, Mic, The Feminist Wire and Young Colored and Angry.
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