Empathy

As it turns out, I have a whole lot of feelings about this whole “scary dangerous people who lack empathy!” thing.

First, to be clear. I don’t feel like I’m at all lacking in empathy myself. This isn’t personal for me in that way.

But I have really strong feelings about how people act like “lacking empathy” (in whatever sense) makes people evil/dangerous/criminal.

The bottom line for me is this: I cannot accept a system of thought in which evil is inherent to certain people.

I can’t. People cannot be biologically determined from birth to be evil. Evil is a choice. Everyone can try to treat people well, and no one is exempt from having to try.

My other quick response goes like this: Oh, sure, because typical empathy totally makes all of us who have it kind, nonviolent people. It totally stops us from knowingly and callously hurting each other, from deciding certain people’s pain isn’t worth caring about, from stealing and cheating and thinking it’s justified.

Are you fucking joking?

Being capable of of spontaneous, visceral empathy for others doesn’t mean we actually have it all that often. It certainly doesn’t mean that it pops up to stop us every time we might hurt or upset someone. Normal people with perfectly functional, normal empathy are assholes to each other all the fucking time.

We decide (or absorb from society, or are explicitly taught) not to empathize with certain people, all the time. Lack of empathy leads people to do terrible things, absolutely. But (the overwhelming majority of the time, at least) it isn’t a complete, innate lack, it comes from all the dehumanizing beliefs we have about each other. It’s about the belief that “those people don’t matter,” in all its forms.

In order to treat people decently, everyone has to make a conscious effort, every day, to fight those things. Occasionally having spontaneous, visceral empathy does not make us superior. It does not make us exempt. I cannot stress this enough. It does not make us exempt from working to understand and respect people.

And lacking empathy, or struggling with it, or having to consciously puzzle out how someone might be feeling instead of understanding intuitively, does not make anyone inherently incapable of treating people well.

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