In order to disprove empathy, first it would be a pretty good idea to define what it is that I’m disproving. Since the internet is basically my dictionary now, I googled the term and it seems that empathy is: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. That sounds pretty nice, right? Well, nice things tend to be bullshit.

So. Empathy.

How would one begin to empathize? Well normally an empathizer requires a subject towards whom he would be empathetic, and would likely foster that empathy by communicating with this subject. The most common way to communicate between human beings is through language, and that is the probable route that our empathizer would take. Just to be clear, I’m pretty sure empathizer is not a word, and I plan on using that fact to allude to my upcoming point. Language is a flawed concept. We can only understand things based on our vocabulary, and if we don’t have a word for something, there’s no way we can comprehend it. Part of the reason that cultures differ is because they have different vocabularies, and therefore different ways of explaining how the world works, which in turn leads to differing world views. So incredibly complex and abstract concepts like emotions and feelings being pinned down using such cumbersome tools as words seems unlikely.

This is on top of our subjective understanding of language. My understanding of the word ‘fear’, for example, would be based on my personal experiences with ‘fear’ as I interpret the expression. My experiences would be entirely different from another’s, and therefore how we define the word would be subjective, and thus even more difficult to communicate effectively.

But let’s say that somehow our victim is a cleverly verbose poet, who is able to perfectly communicate his emotions to our quixotic empathizer. Our victim’s father has died from incurable form of butt cancer, and after hearing such a tragic tale, our empathizer is moved to tears, and feels as though the emotions are truly being shared. HOWEVER, if our empathizer, after hearing our victim’s story, can go home and hug his own, living, father, there is no possible way that he truly understands what our victim is going through. Not having shared the same experience, the empathizer cannot know what it is like to lose a father if he himself has not suffered the same tragedy. In fact, I would go so far as to call it insulting if someone were to claim they knew how it felt if they had never gone through a similar experience.

But now, let’s kill our empathizer’s father. I can do this, because this is just a story to illustrate a point, and I can kill off any character that I choose. So, our empathizer’s father is dead now too. Hell, let’s say he even died from a bad case of the butt cancers. Our empathizer has now suffered through the same exact tragedy as our victim, and feels as though there is a mutual understanding between the two of them. But what if our victim and his father weren’t all that close? Ol’ Daddy took off when Victim was just a wee boy, and sure he wrote letters, but there was never any real paternal connection. Now dad is dead, and yeah, Victim is kinda sad, but really his eyes only welled up a bit and that was it. He didn’t even need a tissue. On the other hand, Empathizer and his dad were close. They played catch every weekend when Empathizer was growing up; they took fishing trips together during the summer; their relationship was basically a Brad Paisley song. I don’t think anyone would reasonably presume that the mutual experience of a father dying of butt cancer affected these two individuals in a similar enough fashion that one would truly understand what the other was going through.

Everyone lives a different life, and lives different experiences. These experiences shape not only how we see the world, but how we feel things as well. Because of this subjectivity, and our inability to invade someone else’s consciousness, I don’t believe empathy is a real thing.

What is empathy, then? When people tell us that their dad died, most people feel sad. Something happens. So, what the hell is going on?

I believe what happens is that people take the experience of the other, and imagine it happening in their own lives. Our empathizer would listen to the victim’s story, and would imagine what life would be like without his own father. This would cause the empathizer to feel the assumed connection with the victim, even if there is no true understanding. Or if the empathizer wasn’t close with his father, then he would use his learned understanding that people on occasion are close with their fathers, and would go from there. We rely on our own experiences to connect with other human beings.

But what if there is no experience that our empathizer has in his repertoire to fall back on? For instance, say our empathizer is a solid Bro, and our victim is a girl who was sexually harassed at work. Our empathizer has no experience with feminist theory, nor has he had any sort of meaningful conversation with a woman ever. He would, upon hearing our new victim’s story, imagine the sexual harassment in his own life, and probably would assume that to have some lady fondle his junk would honestly be pretty sweet. Thus he wouldn’t be able to understand where Victim #2 is coming from at all, and would more than likely assume that she was exaggerating the issue.

I believe that our natural ability to “empathize” creates more problems than it solves. Religious hostilities, sexist policies, cultural divides… you name it, and it’s probably because someone can’t comprehend what another person is feeling, and is using their “empathetic” ability to justify why making these choices isn’t that big of a deal. In Canada, our assimilationist policies regarding Aboriginals were based on our desires to civilize their people; European settlers would see the non-Christian lifestyle, and would try to “better” the lives of these savages, because the Europeans would want someone to do that for them if they were stuck in such a barbaric situation.

Since I’m not a heartless monster, I will offer up a solution to counter-act the destructive nature of empathy. Here it is: listen. Come at any problem under the assumption that you have no idea what the other person is going through, but with the understanding that they do. Then use real emotions like compassion and respect, and listen to what the other person has to say. Learn from them, and trust them to know what they are talking about.

Seriously, how hard is it to not be a dick?

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