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January 31, 2015

Sympathy over empathy

We used to have an obligation to at least try to be sympathetic. Now that’s ratcheted up to having to be empathetic. We should lower the bar.

Sympathy means feeling bad for someone while empathy means actually feeling the same feelings.

If that’s what those words still mean, empathy is more than we usually need and is less than we can often accomplish.

You’re hungry? I can be sympathetic about your hunger, but I can’t feel your hunger.

There are child soldiers? I can perhaps understand some of the situation that lets such a thing happen, and I can be shocked and sad that it does, but I don’t think I can feel what those children feel.

You have been sexually assaulted? I can be deeply sympathetic and supportive, but I don’t think I can actually feel what you felt or even what you are feeling now. For example, if you are now overwhelmingly anxious about being in some ordinary situations — walking to your car, entering an unlit room — you will have all my sympathy and support, but I will not experience the trembling you feel in your knees or the tension expressed by your shallow breaths.

Empathy is hard. It often takes the magic of an artist to get us to feel what a character is feeling. (Q: If I am feeling what a non-existent character is feeling, is that even empathy?)

Empathy is hard. Empathy is rare. Empathy is often exactly what is not required: If you are afraid, you probably don’t need another frightened person. You need someone sympathetic who can help you deal with your fears.

Sympathy is getting a bad rap, as if it means just patting someone on the shoulder and saying “There there.” That’s not what sympathy ever was. Sympathy means you are affected by another person’s feelings, not that you feel those very feelings. If I am sad and worried that you are so depressed, I am affected by your feelings, but I am not myself depressed.

Empathy can be a pure mirror of someone else’s feelings. But sympathy requires more than just feeling. If I see you crying, to be sympathetic I have to know something about you and especially about what has caused you to cry. Are you crying because you’ve been hurt? Because you broke up with someone you loved? Because you just saw a sad movie? Because you didn’t get into a school or onto a particular team? Because you’re sympathizing with someone else? In order to sympathize more fully, I need to know.

That is, in sympathy you turn not just to feelings but to the world. You see what the sufferer sees from her/his point of view, or as close to that point of view as you can. What you see is not a matter of indifference to you. You are moved by what is moving the other. How you are moved is different in type and extent — you are not fearful in the face of the other’s fears, you are not as wracked by grief as is the mourner — but you are moved.

Sympathy lets the world matter to you as it matters to someone else. In sympathy, the mattering culminates from heart, mind, and caring about the other. It is perhaps the best thing we do.

Most importantly, through sympathy are we moved to helpful action, whether that is indeed a pat on the shoulder or requires a far larger commitment. Sympathy does that to us. For us.

Empathy can get in the way of the supportive action that sympathy demands. If a friend is heartbroken because a relationship ended, you may bring to bear a different view of the world and hold out other feelings as possibilities. Hope perhaps. A different perspective. A pint of Ben and Jerry’s. The gap in feelings between you and your friend enables the sympathetic action your friend needs.

If our aim is to act in the world to try to reduce pain, fear, and sadness, then asking for empathy is often to ask for too much. Sympathy more than suffices.

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July 20, 2013

The Rolling Stone cover: Outrage and sympathy

CNN.com has posted my op-ed about the Rolling Stone cover that features Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. It’s not the favorite thing I’ve ever written, but I had about an hour to do a draft.

There are two things I know I’d change without even going through the scary process of re-reading it:

First, CNN edited out any direct assertion that the Tsarnaev’s are guilty. So, there are some “alleged”s awkwardly inserted, and some language that works around direct attribution of guilt. I’m in favor of the presumption of innocence, of course. But inserting the word “alleged” is a formalism without real effect, except when the allegedly alleged murderer’s lawyers call. But, I get it. (CNN also removed some of the links I’d put, including to the cover itself and to the Wikipedia NPOV policy.)

Second, I wanted to say something more directly about the distinction between the sympathy that feels bad for someone’s troubles and the sympathy that lets us understand where the person is coming from. My post too quickly rules out sympathy of any kind because I knew that if I asked for sympathetic understanding, many readers would accuse me of feeling sympathetic toward the perpetrator rather than toward his victims, as if one rules out the other. So, I opted to strike any positive use of the term. (Of course that didn’t stop many of the commenters from claiming that I’m excusing the Tsarnaevs. Ridiculous.)

So, I’ll say it here: sympathetic understanding is a crucial human project, and, in truth, it often does lead toward sympathetic feelings. For example, in The Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer leads us through the story of the mass killer Gary Gilmore, providing explanations that implicitly run the gamut from psychological to economic to social to Nietzschean to Freudian [1]. Inevitably we do feel some emotional sympathy for Gilmore, although without thinking him one whit less culpable. It sucked to be Gary Gilmore, and that doesn’t mean it didn’t suck far worse to be one of his victims.

In the same way, the common narrative about the Tsarnaev brothers (which I, too, accept) is that the older brother was a rotten apple who drew the younger brother into evil. I think the story of how the younger brother became “radicalized” — in quotes because it is an exteriorized word — is more interesting to most of us than how the older brother got there. If and when they make the movie, the part of the younger brother will be the plum role. That’s the narrative that has been served to us, and there are reasons to think that it’s basically right: the younger brother didn’t show signs of radicalization — his friends were genuinely shocked — while the older brother did. (The Rolling Stone article elaborates this narrative by explaining not only how the younger came to his beliefs, but also by showing that he kept the change hidden.) This narrative also fits well into our cultural narrative about youth being innocent until corrupted. But my point is not that the narrative is true or false or both or neither. It is that we generally hold to that narrative in this case, and it is a narrative that naturally engenders some element of emotional sympathy for the corrupted youth. And what’s wrong with that? Sympathy doesn’t have to take sides. Our judgment does that. Understanding how Dzhokhar Tsarnaev went from innocent to a murderer of children (allegedly!) and what it was like to be him doesn’t mean that I hold him less culpable, that I want his sentence reduced, or — most importantly — that I now have less sympathy for his victims. Indeed, the whole power of The Narrative depends upon our continuing horror at what he did.

To say otherwise is to deny the power of narrative and art. It means we should ban not just The Executioner’s Song but also In Cold Blood, Crime and Punishment and even Madame Bovary, each of which bring us to both cognitive and emotional sympathy for people who did bad things [2]. It is also to deny that evil is the act of humans and thus is a possibility for each of us, at least in a “there but for the grace of God” sense.[3] And, to my way of thinking, our outrage at any attempt to understand those who commit incontrovertibly evil acts is intended exactly to silence that scariest of thoughts.


[1] It’s been decades since I read The Executioner’s Song, so I’m probably misrepresenting which exact explanatory theories Mailer employs.

[2] I know Madame Bovary is different because her acts of adultery even within the frame of the book are so thoroughly understandable.

[3] At the last minute when finishing this post, I removed a sentence referencing Hannah Arendt’s complex phrase “the banality of evil.” It raised too many issues for a final paragraph. (And I have a sense I will regret including Madame Bovary in the list. See footnote 2.)

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