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VOLZ: The Case Against Empathy

By  Elizabeth Volz

My earliest memories are of homelessness as a child. My parents, my eight siblings, and myself lived in a homeless shelter for over four months, and then spent another four or five months living in a motor home. Both of my parents’ mental health issues led to a life of chaos with intermittent periods of stability, but constant poverty. In middle school I became a dependent of the court. When I reunited with my mother and moved into a trailer park in the rural northern Sierra Nevada mountains of California I believed that I was now part of middle-class America. Throughout these experiences I was the recipient of much empathy from those working at food banks, others in attendance at the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to which I accompanied my mother, social workers, teachers, classmates who knew where I lived, etc. This was not because of any individualized concern for me as a person but empathy based on my status and the pain they imagined for me. Empathy encompasses both feeling another’s emotions and having the desire to help him. This vision of empathy is untethered because (1) it’s not channeled through a personal relationship, but extended to a category of human beings and (2) it’s taken for granted that there ought to be no limiting principle because empathy will help us determine what is right and wrong. What makes empathy right to begin with?

I became cognizant of the culture of empathy-as-the-panacea in college when I took an English class focused largely on unpacking empathy; this is also when I began to question the legitimacy of its hegemony in our value system. In a collection of essays entitled The Empathy Exams, author Leslie Jamison traces the suffering of her own life and others she finds to have been victimized, such as “cutters,” or those who inflict harm on themselves. She concedes that cutters may just want attention, but posits what could be more human than granting that wish by empathizing with them? I began to wonder whether trying to share in or understand the pain of a class of people who are unknown on an individual level added any value to their lives, whether it bettered the author or empathizer’s own life, and how this kind of empathy had affected me as someone who grew up as a long-term recipient of social welfare.

The phrase “trying to share in” underscores the epistemological difficulties inherent in empathy. The presumptions are threefold: that one can rightfully judge that a class of people subjectively feels they are suffering; that they are feeling it monolithically, and that the empathizer can truly experience that feeling. Placing empathy at the apex of our value system has created more suffering by convincing the recipients of our generosity that they are in fact suffering and that this necessitates the role of a benefactor in their lives. This untethered empathy corrupts both parties. The recipients are sent a message that they are less capable than their benefactors, and the empathizers similarly refrain from self-cultivation by externalizing their energy in the form of helping those who they believe are suffering.

Given that the only childhood I knew was one of being the beneficiary of these empathizers through the welfare system, I never realized its perversities. I simply intuited through the unending sympathies of those helping me that I was something to be pitied because I was a victim of life’s cruelty. Because I was a victim, and my circumstances could not be remedied except through large-scale government programs that would “eradicate poverty,” my actions were inconsequential and I therefore bore no responsibility for stasis. It was covertly impressed upon me that I was unable to exercise any individual agency. At the same time, our culture of empathy left me feeling more isolated, rather than less, because the way we identify ourselves has become rooted in our personal suffering. No one could really understand how it felt to have a paranoid schizophrenic father and parents of nine children that, at one point, made $8,000 per year. Fortunately, my intellectual curiosity allowed me to question this regime; but I watched several people growing up in similar circumstances around me woefully degenerate.

These people degenerated, largely through drug addiction, because they viewed themselves as incapable of becoming something other than an object of pity; it was all they had ever been. Their empathizers provided for their basic needs, creating an incentive to suffer further — to create their own suffering in the form of self-destruction. This incentive holds true from an economic standpoint in the form of direct aid and from a psychological standpoint. The pitied gain some sliver of emotional fulfillment out of harvesting more empathy because they have been led to believe that they cannot derive fulfillment in life through self-improvement. They had been set on this path since birth and thus they deserved empathy for their suffering. The debilitating effect of empathy begets more suffering, begets more yearning for empathy. This fact does not dismiss that people are born into drastically disparate circumstances; rather, it underscores that these circumstances cannot be overcome by or through empathy which detracts from one’s sense of autonomy and responsibility.

This culture has similarly perverse effects on our benefactors who, while rooting out this supposed suffering, are left yearning for their own suffering. The author Leslie Jamison demonstrates this longing to suffer in Empathy Exams with her revelation that she used to invent terrible day-dreams about traumas she had never endured. Similarly, when I began law school, conversation sometimes bore out that I do not come from the same socio-economic background as my colleagues who were bred to go to top law schools. At times I was met with envious looks and comments by those who view trauma, real or perceived, as what makes someone “interesting.”

Because the culture of untethered empathy has morphed our sense of identity into our suffering, those who view themselves as outside of the class of victims long to suffer. They cloak themselves in the supposed suffering of others through their empathy and generosity to give credibility to their claims about the cruelty of the world and as validation for their own dissatisfaction. They are in pain because others suffer. I hope that we can overcome our collective desire to root out suffering where it does not exist and where we do not understand it. When we overcome our desire to share in one another’s pain, we may begin to share our happiness.

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