To Empathize, Or Not To Empathize

Originally posted on February 19, 2010

In my experience, empathy is a learned behavior. Most humans possess the capacity for it, but actually acquiring it takes effort. Often people confuse sympathy with empathy. My interpretation of the difference between the two is that sympathy is feeling for someone whereas empathy is feeling with someone. In other words, sympathy is feeling what you feel while empathy is feeling what someone else feels.

Humans sympathize with others readily and easily, but empathy is a much trickier deal. The reason is because we can all imagine how we would individually react to a given situation, which is all sympathy is. For instance, when I speak about my childhood experiences, people may sympathize with me. In doing so, they are simply imagining what they would feel if they experienced my childhood. Empathizing takes more effort because it requires a person to try to feel as I do about what happened. Even people who can do it are not always particularly good at it.

Such manifestations of empathy will vary in degrees and perhaps even in accuracy. Certainly one would likely see that males and females, who tend to expression their emotions differently even in infancy, would express empathy in different ways. Hugo Schwyzer disagrees, stating:

I think BD is right in one sense, in that I think we do indeed teach men to associate empathy with the burden of managing someone else’s fragile emotions — a boss who needs placating, or a child who can’t yet self-regulate. But if he’s implying that men and women have different but equally valid interpretations of the purpose of empathy, I think that’s much more problematic. In BD’s formulation, men are taught to see empathy as a tool to be used in a certain select set of scenarios, two in particular: first, when a reward is available, such as from a boss (or, in the case of the study we’re citing, cash-for-empathic display); two, when dealing with someone needier and more vulnerable than themselves, such as a child or the victim of a particular tragedy. It is not, in other words, a relationship tool — indeed, in “guyland”, a relationship in which empathy is not required is far more egalitarian than one in which it is needed.

Hugo harbors a bias against males, and he tends to demonstrate it whenever the discussion requires (ironically) empathy towards males or men’s issues. What Hugo fails to see is that men’s use of empathy for those in need actually is a relationship tool. Males using empathy in this way demonstrate their social worthiness by their capacity to care for those who cannot care for themselves or who might otherwise get ostracized or abandoned by society at large. This display of empathy is an extension of the protector role and it is something even little boys will engage in without any social prompt. More so, empathizing for others in this way is often a humbling experience because it means creating a more egalitarian situation.

What Hugo claims is a lack of empathy in “guyland” (feminist-speak for male friendships) is actually a demonstration of how males empathize. Males who empathize with their male friends specifically avoid doing things that would hurt that relationship. They are there for them at any time. They will stand by them in times of need. They will care for if they are hurt. They will enjoy their achievements and abhor their defeats. The notion that males do not empathize with each other or seek to avoid it would be laughable if it was not clear that Hugo apparently actually believes this. Males simply express their empathy in different ways than females do, mostly through actions and not words.

Hugo goes on to write:

Here’s how culturally constructed masculinity warps us all: for far too many men, empathy gets associated with manipulation and dependency rather than intimacy. The message seems to be: You can have my empathy, or you can have my respect as my equal. But you can’t have both. I don’t think that marks a “healthy difference” between men and women. It’s absurd to imagine that we can sustain healthy relationships when one sex believes empathy is a necessary component of all our interactions and another sex believes it to be an unpleasant tactic, a tool to be employed in a few instances, most of which involve a hierarchy of power and respect.

Again, this statement appears born out of Hugo’s (ironic) apathy towards males. Males empathize with others primarily as a display of respect. To feel sorry for someone is merely pity or sympathy. To actually try to feel what another person feels and to want to do something about it is an intimate gesture.

What Hugo seemingly objects to is that males are more selective in their empathy. Part of that may be cultural, but it is more likely just an extension of how males think and feel. Males may simply be deciding whether a person or a group of people are deserving of that level of emotional involvement, which lends credence to Tom’s statement that the reason “most men learn not to empathize more than very selectively is to avoid vulnerability and protect oneself.” Unlike females, males cannot socially be vulnerable as they lose their status among other males and females. Another reason is that because empathizing puts one in an emotionally vulnerable state, some people will take advantage of that. There are some people who will feign problems or issues in order to manipulate others.

And contrary to what one may think, this group is likely equally female and male, although women do appear more likely to abuse men’s empathy via intimacy, which may be the reason why males are so wary of expressing empathy as a tool for intimate relationships.

So in terms of self-protection, males may engage in selective empathy, using sympathy in the interim. The interesting effect of this is that males may catch more manipulative attempts or deceptions since they are not as emotionally invested in a particular situation. This seems to hold true for women who behave in a similarly shrewd manner. Curiously, women who behave in this way receive much more condemnation from other women than men.

Hugo makes a few more leaps in logic:

So the good news: one more bit of evidence that the full spectrum of human emotion is available to every member of the species, regardless of biology. The study reinforces the truth that the reason so many members of each sex utilize less than that full spectrum is attributable to socialization and choice, not to physiology. But we need to do more than say, “Huh, isn’t that interesting”. We need to recognize that this is one of those instances where ability translates to obligation; if men can empathize, than I think it’s fairly clear that they should do so far more often than they do.

Why? Merely to make wives and girlfriends and sisters happier? No, though making relationships better is nothing at which to sneeze. It’s that in the end, all great cruelty is, as Timothy Findley so famously said, a failure of the imagination. And the kind of imagination at which men so often fail is not the ability to imagine alternate universes or other fantastical things — it is the simpler failure to imagine what another person feels. When men regard that kind of imagination as a tool or a burden rather than as a gift and a responsibility, they become the chief architects of human suffering. To refuse to empathize is to be complicit, in a way either large or small, in the ongoing great crime.

A lack of empathy can sometimes lend to human suffering. However, so can an overdose of empathy. That can lead to people electrocuting other people in order to “cure” them of their homosexuality. Or people wrapping children suffering from seizures in blankets to “free the demons.” Or people forcing children to ingest large quantities of speed because the children will not sit still for eight hours straight. There are more than enough instances of people being hurt physically, emotionally, sexually and spiritually out of a genuine, albeit misguided, desire to help them.

However, Hugo’s comment is simply a jab at males. Rather than disabuse himself of the idea that anything associated with males is inherently evil, Hugo (ironically) reinforces males’ tendency to empathize with the weak and helpless by playing on males’ desire and the cultural expectation for males to protect the weak and helpless.

What Hugo sees as a “failure to imagine what another person feels” is actually just males being cautious about who they extend empathy towards. That is a very smart and commendable because doing so may prevent a man or boy from empathizing with those he should not empathize with. It may prevent him from so valuing another person that he ignores that person’s harm against others or excuses it. It may prevent him from supporting views that degrade others. It may prevent him from backing ideologies that scapegoat entire groups of people, and in some instances ideologies that support the extermination of entire groups of people.

Being selective can be a wise decision because it demonstrates that a person is not simply concerned with himself, but also concerned with others. One could argue that those who consider empathy integral to every human interaction are not actually concerned with others at all. Rather, they are only concerned with themselves and use empathy as a tool for personal gratification and manipulation, not out love or respect.

As Karen notes:

Seems to me a lot of people view sensitivity (awareness) as showing vulnerability and while many of them desire that in the context of relationships they don’t value or respect it–not really to the extent that they say they do. Seems to me a lot of people view that as being in a one-down position.

Empathy is emotional and internal. Sympathy is intellectual and external. A good many people confuse the two.

Hugo appears to be one of those people, and unfortunately he does so in an (ironically) apathetic way.

17 thoughts on “To Empathize, Or Not To Empathize

  1. I’ve often thought that one of the dominant features of most forms of feminist ideology is a lack of empathy and understanding combined with utter ignorance of that lack. They know nothing about what most men’s lives are like or what goes on in their heads, but presume to speak as authorities on the subject anyway. The further away one gets from “elite” males, the more extreme the disconnection from reality gets. Virtually every feminist I’ve ever read discussing male experiences, and especially male “privilege,” sounds like they’ve wandered in from some parallel bizarro universe.

    I think the stereotype of superior female empathy Schwyzer is promoting, and which is widespread in society generally, is itself a major part of this problem- it leads women into thinking that they know and understand a lot more than they do, and that they are more compassionate than they are.

    The latter belief is potentially EXTREMELY dangerous. If I think that I’m just naturally overflowing with benevolence and compassion, and your (generic “your) pain does not move me, then the natural conclusion for me to come to is that your pain doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter- if it did, someone as filled with empathy as I am would care, and so the problem must be with you.

  2. I mentioned this over at feministcritics. I think many women somehow believe they are far more empathetic then men by assuming men just aren’t capable of the full spectrum of human emotions.

    BTW, Toysoldier… as much as I disagree with Hugo’s knee-jerk dismissal of all things masculine… I’d be careful about defending the masculine status quo in the west too much.

    It’s dysfunctional that men can’t tend to each other’s vulnerabilities. Having studied cultures in which men valued each other much more–including our own not four generations ago–I think that this inability not a feature of masculinity but a result of weakening masculinity in the west.

  3. John Markley:

    I’ve often thought that one of the dominant features of most forms of feminist ideology is a lack of empathy and understanding combined with utter ignorance of that lack. They know nothing about what most men’s lives are like or what goes on in their heads, but presume to speak as authorities on the subject anyway. The further away one gets from “elite” males, the more extreme the disconnection from reality gets. Virtually every feminist I’ve ever read discussing male experiences, and especially male “privilege,” sounds like they’ve wandered in from some parallel bizarro universe.

    True. When you have feminists who can’t say anything about the lives of men beyond “they’re privileged” with the occasional “patriarchy hurts men too” to silence their critics you are seeing some of the very same silencing, minimizing, marginalizing that they point out that men do to women.

    Beyond empathy/sympathy look at how most feminist discourse goes when talking about men’s studies. Usually they laugh and say something to the effect of “every class that doesn’t focus on specifically on women is men’s studies”. I almost laugh when I read that because more than likely its either coming from a woman that thinks she knows everything about men already or a male that is misguided at best and self loathing at worst.

    I think the reason they display such behavior because they can’t stand the idea that gender relations can be solved without feminists/women making all the calls and given the approval.

  4. I mentioned this over at feministcritics. I think many women somehow believe they are far more empathetic then men by assuming men just aren’t capable of the full spectrum of human emotions.

    I agree, and I think that assumption is men’s fault. Men rarely challenge the notion that women are emotionally superior to men, and that narrative has been a part of the social norm for several generations to the extent that people may simply take it for granted. This is something that I think feminists have really failed to actually address.

    BTW, Toysoldier… as much as I disagree with Hugo’s knee-jerk dismissal of all things masculine… I’d be careful about defending the masculine status quo in the west too much.

    I agree that Western masculinity has many problems that are not seen in masculinities abroad. However, I am not necessarily defending Western masculinity so much as I am challenging Hugo’s position that Western males do not empathize. The way Western males empathize may be problematic, but it does happen.

  5. Hello Toysoldier,

    I’m the person who you quoted above. I don’t feel comfortable and tend to avoid making sweeping generalizations or using stereotypes about perceived cultural/gender differences between men and women when it comes to empathy. I did state that in my response to Hugo’s piece. In my experience suggesting that women are emotionally superior to men when it comes to demonstrating empathy for others is neither true nor fair. It’s far more complicated than that. Neither sex holds a monopoly on empathy. I don’t really see how it is relevant or more importantly even helpful to turn these discussions into perpetrating an us or them mentality. Noone gains or benefits from those types of discussions, or at least not in the way it’s presented.

    I’m certain there are some cultural and gender differences, but I tend to see a person’s family environment as being more of a critical factor in shaping a person’s character and life experiences.

    I tend to agree with your observations about being cautious and selective for the reasons you state. I’m engage in self-protection too and as you note above I’ve come under a lot of attack and criticism from other women. I don’t encounter that type of criticism from (some) men (the good one’s anyway). In fact, they seem to validate the need for self-protection, which I believe is healthy and positive. I find it curious too and see similar types of critical behaviors (from) when ideas and threads about protection come up.

    I see you’ve given this issue a lot of thought. I have too. My interpretation of empathy and sympathy is also similar to yours. The way both sexes empathize can be problematic.

    Thanks for your thoughtful post on the subject. I’m still thinking about it.

  6. Pingback: Weekend Linkfest – Hey Joe edition « Seasons of Tumult and Discord

  7. “We need to recognize that this is one of those instances where ability translates to obligation; if men can empathize, than I think it’s fairly clear that they should do so far more often than they do.”
    -Hugo S.

    I’d like Hugo to be a bit more specific about those other situations where ability translates into obligation. I can’t think of many, and the few that I can are limited to very specific contexts of temporary duration. Even child support court orders that oblige a man to find more money than he currently earns on the strength of his assessed ability are limited to fathers, and for a fixed period (as well as being far from universally agreed upon as just). I can’t think of any generalized instance of an ability being an obligation.

    Hugo’s lack of understanding of male empathy, and his readiness to resort to compulsion make him sound very familiar.

  8. “Hugo’s lack of understanding of male empathy, and his readiness to resort to compulsion make him sound very familiar.”

    He reminds me a lot of Dr. Phil in that they both are quite privileged relative to other men, both sexually and financially, and clueless about other men’s lives and yet are thoroughly convinced that they know everything there is to know about them/us. That and their unfailing contempt for any man other than themselves. They are really quite transparent.

    Someone like Hugo, cosseted in a physically safe academic environment, is quite unaware of a great number of men’s working lives. In this post he seems completely unaware of combat bonding for instance. Of course he has never experienced it, and probably has any number of breezy dismissals on hand, but that is no excuse for his ignorance if he is going to presume to pronounce on men’s empathy. It is real, it is empathy, and he ignores it.

    Karen, I really liked your comments over there.

  9. Hugo writes for the Good Men Project.

    Presumably because he’s one of the (extremely rare) Good Men out there who is qualified to lecture us on how much we ought to loathe ourselves. Thank God he was able to appoint himself.

  10. Presumably because he’s one of the (extremely rare) Good Men out there who is qualified to lecture us on how much we ought to loathe ourselves. Thank God he was able to appoint himself.

    The Good Men Project also allows Paul Elam to write for them, so while it is a feminist site trying to disguise itself, it is open to all male perspectives.

  11. “Karen, I really liked your comments over there.”

    Thanks Jim. Sometimes I post there, but not as often as I once used too and there are several Jims over there.

    “Someone like Hugo, cosseted in a physically safe academic environment, is quite unaware of a great number of men’s working lives. In this post he seems completely unaware of combat bonding for instance. Of course he has never experienced it, and probably has any number of breezy dismissals on hand, but that is no excuse for his ignorance if he is going to presume to pronounce on men’s empathy. It is real, it is empathy, and he ignores it.”

    Yes, the academic environment keeps him insulated from understanding a much different environment and experience. I think that is true of most academics. I don’t underestimate the power of a person’s unbringing to shape their views either and his parents were also academics.

    Funny, I’ve encountered men who were far more empathetic towards my experiences than what I’ve experienced from women, so I try to avoid making sweeping generalizations. The women on the other hand, have been more selfish and emotionally abusive towards me and tend to want me to understand them, while not demonstrating any understanding towards me. That is, of course, the hallmark of a selfish person.

    I’m not perfect either, so I do occasionally have to remind myself to avoid making generalizations. It’s been done to me quite frequently and I hate that.

  12. Karen, I think traits like well-developed empthy are more individual than gender-based, even correcting for soeme alleged differences in cultural expectations and socialization.

    I also think that men tend to mistreat men more and women, women generally.

    “The women on the other hand, have been more selfish and emotionally abusive towards me and tend to want me to understand them, while not demonstrating any understanding towards me.”

    That sounds like narcissism, and God knows there are plenty of male narcissists. You damn near have to be a narcissist to succeed at the higher levels of the corporate world. Women tend to get diagnosed more as Borderlines, but they both sound a lot alike to me.

  13. Toysoldier, I know this is off topic but could you check out Feministcritics.org for me? I haven’t been able to establish a connection with them. Instead, I get this:

    Connection Failed: http://www.feministcritics.org.alias/

    What’s with the “Alias” end? What’s going on?

    This is really concerning.

    “Your request could not connect to the correct web server. This typically occurs as a result of a temporary outage or problem on our network. We can automatically detect most such problems and we are probably already working on it, so please wait a few minutes and then try your request again.

    If this message persists for more than a few minutes, please contact the site operator so they can investigate. If you are the site operator, please log in to our member interface to check for system problems before reporting this issue.

    We apologize for the inconvenience and will do whatever it takes to get the site back online as soon as possible.”

    Is feministcritics.org gone for good? 😦

  14. Hi Jim,

    “Karen, I think traits like well-developed empthy are more individual than gender-based, even correcting for soeme alleged differences in cultural expectations and socialization.”

    Yes, I’d agree and on an inter-personal level it tends to impact me more when it is individual.

    “I also think that men tend to mistreat men more and women, women generally.”

    This is probably true as well. So then I wonder if you feel this is more about gender. I don’t really buy into all the biologically rooted arguments when it comes to behaviors. At times it tends to sound like people are making excuses for behaviors, which I feel are more about individual character and socialization rather than biology….Just a thought…

    “That sounds like narcissism, and God knows there are plenty of male narcissists….Women tend to get diagnosed more as Borderlines, but they both sound a lot alike to me.”

    I’m certain that there are fine distinctions between the two, although I would also agree that they both sound a lot alike. I’ve encountered a lot of narcissists, although in my life experience I’ve encountered far more women who behave that way than men.

    “You damn near have to be a narcissist to succeed at the higher levels of the corporate world.”

    I don’t necessarily see being driven or focused to succeed as characteristic of narcissism. It depends on how they (CEO’s) treat others. One can be focused as well as compassionate. One can make or have to make very hard choices that impact others, but when confronted with difficult decisions still have to make them even if the choices are unpopular. I do not believe that is evidence of narcissism. Some people act with “enlightened self-interest”, which to me is a far cry from blantant narcissism…Something to ponder.

    A woman, like “octomom” is an example of a female version of a narcissist. Her drive to have children, without considering the impact of her choices on the children is/was lacking in empathy and compassion. It was all self-focused. Sadly, I’ve met many women like that–they just have fewer children.

  15. Yeah, I found that out. Thanks.

    As far as Hugo, well, ironically the more insulated your are, the harder it is to be empathetic to what you decry.

  16. As far as Hugo, well, ironically the more insulated your are, the harder it is to be empathetic to what you decry.

    It is not really that ironic. The more insulated people are, the more likely they assume they are intrinsically right. Since empathy requires a person to question whether their views, those who do not do so (or are unwilling to) will be less likely to empathize with others.

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