Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Sympathise don't Empathise!


This is a guest post from Sparky, of Spark in Darkness.  Many of you are  familiar with him from Livejournal, as well as from his insightful and often hilarious commentary here. Each Tuesday, Womanist Musings will be featuring a post from Sparky.

So, I was talking about how Beloved’s parents aren’t exactly super-duper thrilled about be, or mine about him for that matter – and I was quickly informed by an empathetic person that they totally understood, they didn’t get on well with their in-laws either. See, they understood what it was to be rejected by your loved one’s family.

But it’s not a matter of my in-laws not liking me or my parents not liking Beloved. Even if Beloved or I were completely different men, our parents would still be hostile. We cannot have a relationship that would possibly meet their approval. Every potential relationship is wrong. It would actually be better for us not to have relationships, in their eyes, than have any of the relationships open to us. Our very capacity to love is flawed in their eyes. They weren’t just rejecting our partners, they were rejecting us. And that is so extremely different from your in-laws not liking you very much. 

I spoke about the difficulties of the closet and the evils it perpetuated on us. And someone told me how they understood because they were “closeted” about their political position (in fact. The Tories actually ran an advertising campaign based on the concept). 

See, they wanted to say, they understood how hard it was to be closeted, because they had to hide too!

Except there is a world of difference between political opinion and actual being. Except they didn’t have to live with constant societal rejection and invisibility. Except they didn’t have the shame and self-loathing and the history of conversion therapy, bullying, suicide, substance abuse, familial hatred and everything else that goes into the soul-destroying closet. They had none of this context behind them to make such a gross statement.

I spoke about how slurs hurt, how they made the whole world cringe for me and how dehumanising they were. And someone told me that someone called them an anti-gay slur once because they thought he was gay!

See, they wanted to say, they understood what it was like to be called that nasty name, because they’d been called it too.

Except there’s a huge difference between being called a slur and merely insulted. And doubly so when you’re called a slur that doesn’t even apply to you. The mere fact that being called gay, by various words, is an insult to straight people shows how much we’re reviled. And there’s a world of difference between being called something that challenges your humanity and comes with a full context of violence and hate – and being called something inaccurate you can counter with “am not.” 

The problem here is the eternal attempt to empathise rather than sympathise. See sympathising normally works well. You see someone is in pain, angry or upset and you agree, you comfort, you commiserate. That’s not to say sympathising can’t be done wrong – sometimes I’ve complained about something and found the person sympathising with me is more upset than me, sometimes upset enough that I feel the urge to comfort them. Sometimes we talk about something and the sheer fury of ally sympathy is so great that it drowns us out. But, on the whole, sympathising works.

Empathising? Doesn’t. Because you can’t, not really. You don’t understand, not fully, because you haven’t lived it – and there’s nothing wrong with that. You don’t need to have lived it to know it’s wrong, you don’t need to empathise with my pain to know I’m hurting. If I lost my hand in a horrible accident, you wouldn’t need to talk about your hangnail to show you know I’m in pain. Instead your attempt to emphasise just says you don’t get it, you don’t understand and, so often, minimises what we’re talking about.

And I know this most certainly happens across marginalisations. Just look at the blonds who show up to tell Renee that people touch their hair too whenever she writes about Black hair and unwanted touching.

Attempts to empathise rarely work out, they miss out on context, are often blinkered by privilege and are sometimes appropriative besides. Sympathise by all means (though not too dramatically) but not empathise.