Empathy is Not Experience, and… That’s Okay

April 11, 2021

If there’s anything decent people have come to realize over the last year, it’s that many of us lead very, very different life experiences. As soon as you start getting into the specifics, things start to get complicated (and often testy), so let’s just stick with that observation for now. The lives we lead, the things we start with, or without — they’re all really different, and there are combinations and possibilities in play that a lot of us have never even considered, been aware of, or made accommodations for. I don’t think this is especially controversial, but I guess everything is now.

Equally non-controversial, I would think, is that this reality is at the root of a lot of problems and a lot of resentment. Some of it is really big, impactful, and existential to things like the functioning of our republic. Some of it just leads to people getting stressed out at work, or losing themselves in pointless fights on Twitter, or Reddit, or (God forbid) somewhere in real life.

Of course, it isn’t all bad. To the contrary, it feels like today there are way more examples than ever of people getting past resentments by understanding one of these blind spots, and better accommodating someone else. Maybe, as with the bad things, we’re just hearing about more “things” in general thanks to technology and new media, but I’d at least like to think we’re making small bits of progress every now and then. 

At work, people like me hear a lot about “empathy”, and especially that we need to have it, or learn it, and use it. Lots of well intentioned, often well-educated, millennial white people (waves to camera like he’s in the background of a local news report) have sort of looked around and tried to figure out what the right thing to do is in a world of situations that aren’t really about us, but are definitely affected by or perpetuated by us. It’s a weird position to be in. Not necessarily hard, but definitely weird, because it’s very morally ambiguous and there’s aren’t a lot of good, obvious historical scenarios to emulate. There is a lot of conflicting advice out there, though probably because there are a lot of different scenarios happening, and unfortunately most of them require bespoke, complex solutions, difficult conversations/moments, mistakes, vulnerability, all that good stuff. 

With all that complexity and a burning need for a Ted-talk sized solution, the quick one is “have empathy”, and to be fair, there are certainly worse principles to abide by. Being generally interested in the welfare of others and aware of the fact that you probably have blind spots is, frankly, a better starting spot for doing good than most people find themselves in today. So if we can nail that, it’s definitely a positive. But… we need to understand what we’re accomplishing, and what we’re not. 

Emotional intelligence is not a panacea

The main thing to keep in mind is that empathy is not shared experience. The way I look at it, empathy is not necessarily understanding a scenario — it’s understanding that a scenario can exist. Those are not the same things, and if you’re trying to contribute to building a better world by expressing empathy, you can’t get caught up on having a shared experience you can never actually have. You have your experience, and you oftentimes have the ability to make your experience richer, and more informed, and more three dimensional. Wonderful! But other people’s lives are not series of merit badges you can collect. I lived in Ohio for two years. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but I didn’t know anybody and I was hundreds of miles from home and I didn’t have any money, so it felt like a really long time. But I don’t know what it’s like to be from the midwest, or even just from Ohio, or to feel any of the cultural affinity that’s most common from people who are. I have a better sense of what it is, and what it isn’t, than I did before I moved out there, for sure. But I don’t get to hand wave anyone away who thinks I don’t understand the midwest from other perspectives, because I don’t. Maybe, in some contexts, it doesn’t matter that I don’t understand that experience. But if that’s the case, that’s the argument I need to make, not that I somehow share experiences that I don’t.

I picked a pretty lame example there because it’s harmless and doesn’t really have a lot of societal baggage — different kinds of suburban white people learning about each other’s regional differences, whoop-dee-damn-doo. But obviously this is also true for differences in experience that have much greater consequences, like race, gender, and economics. It’s a good thing that we are trying to understand each other more. But we have to know that people trying to understand YOU really can’t beyond a certain level — that’s just a limitation of the human experience — and on the other side, that knowing you have a blind spot can help you mitigate it, but is unlikely to ever truly remove it. It just gives you the ability to drive a little more carefully in certain scenarios. 

There are a lot of social and political changes that I think need to happen to build what I consider a (more) virtuous society that best reflects not the literal, textbook America we started off with, but the ideal I think we were at least shooting for in our weird, stunted, hypocritical way back in the 18th century. But those changes are necessary to solve the very specific challenges we face right now, which are less fundamental problems of humanity, and more individual injuries and damages we’ve inflicted to certain groups for certain reasons. I know a lot of people don’t like to hear that, but you don’t have to read Howard Zinn to look at history and conclude that America has some very specific baggage that isn’t even all that old. We have to fix the resulting damage, and it’s going to make a lot of people angry, and if I knew how to resolve that I’d run for office. 

However, those things aside (yes, that’s a lot to ask), baking in general empathy, the ability to see it and accept it, and most importantly, an understanding of what can and cannot be accomplished with it, is a change and a social investment that can do a lot of good over the indefinite future, as we deal with more problems that surface from our past decisions, and even ones we haven’t created yet, but almost certainly will. We should do this. It’s not weakness, it’s not pandering. It’s becoming more human in the best way, and as small as the world is now, it’s increasingly something we can’t afford to do.