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.