On Empathy

Compassionate action over empathy

To be effective accomplices, we need to move beyond the state of feeling into the state of doing.

I see a lot of chatter about “empathy.” In design and tech we frame nearly every human problem with it. The word has become a watery, vague catch-all.

I think it’s a problem.

Empathy is feeling what someone else is feeling. It is attempting to crawl into their minds and hearts and experience what they’re experiencing.

This is impossible. We cannot feel what it is to be anyone but ourselves. A non-Black person cannot feel what it means to be Black.

Empathy validates another’s emotion by our understanding and feeling. It’s why you see people self-flagellating at protests and hurting themselves to “feel” the pain. It’s performative and self-centring. And awkward AF. You’ve made a protest about Black lives about white guilt.

Empathy takes someone else’s lived experiences and limits their emotional depth and range to our own.We crawl into the perceived intensity of their sadness, but really, through this process, we adapt or appropriate it as our own, centring our own feelings in the process.

Instead of trying to feel something we can’t truly know to validate it, we should trust others’ experiences.

We can offer compassion, which doesn’t require our own understanding in order to validate it as being real and worthy of attention. Meditation often focuses on this.

Compassion, unlike empathy, allows us to remain rational. It’s what allows us to act when someone gets injured in front of us. Compassion allows us to take action in the face of their pain; we trust their anger and pain without taking it on.

It’s not ours to take.

I worry that when we fixate on empathy, we stay focused and stuck on whiteness and the guilt that millions are feeling for the first time. It’s one reason I’ll no longer recommend White Fragility. The whole book stays on white feelings without switching to privileged action.

If we stay in this state of empathy, we stay in a state of self-loathing and inaction. We allow our privilege subscriptions to expire month by month.

It’s not helpful for us or anyone else.

When we superimpose that layer atop it all, no Black feelings or experiences are validated until felt by whiteness. The focus has always been on whiteness. It’s why white tears are so effective.

The focus needs to shift; the centres majority needs to learn to decentre itself.

It’s one reason why it’s far easier to get people to protest than it is to sign a petition or call a representative. We want to feel part of something; we want our actions to be noticed. We want the credit for our work.

I’m not shaming that idea, it’s natural, I feel it too.

I think though we need to recognise when we are centring ourselves and radically decentre ourselves, pass the mic, push the spotlight, step aside, go backstage, feel the weight of what we are feeling, yes.

If we need to, take time to share our feelings outward to less-affected loved ones.

And when we do so, we should make sure the feelings we feel are ours and ours alone, reflect and rest, and get to work.

Empathy gets thrown around a lot as the solution to the world's problems. I think we need to examine what empathy really is.

Tue Jun 09 2020 12:57:02 GMT+0000 (Coordinated Universal Time)

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