Tuesday, May 29, 2012

How much empathy do we need anyway?

When I was at school, we had to do a history coursework project entitled Empathy. We had to write three essays on What should happen at the Treaty of Versailles from the point of view of a British Tommy, a German politician and a French washerwoman (it should have been - I think it was a French General, but I can't remember exactly) in 1919. Most of us objected to what amounted to a creative writing exercise for history coursework, but hey, it was a creative writing exercise so I loved it.

My Tommy was a open-hearted poetry-reading Cockney who, despite the lurid flashbacks he experienced mid-sentence, saw that the Germans were a broken people and shouldn't be treated too Hackney Marsh. The Frenchman insisted that there was greater danger in creating a future German aggressor through massive sanctions and huge reparations, and after all, what was the point of Alsace and Loraine apart from dogs (German Shepherd Dogs after all) and quiche? The German politician was a Marxist and felt that if the war had proven anything, there no point in nations anyway. 

This wasn't what you were supposed to do. The naive point of the exercise was to imagine how particular individuals felt about the aftermath of the First World War (blissfully ignorant of the word First in its title) in order to understand why the Treaty of Versailles and its consequences were inevitable; the British were angry, the French were afraid and the Germans were a proud nation in shock. But not all British felt the same, not all of France felt the same and Germany was in a state of revolution, so there were certainly some diverse views in that quarter. Some people argued at the time that the Treaty was setting up plot lines for the sequel, twenty years later. The Treaty of Versailles happened because certain individuals - lots of them, mind - had particular points of view. And those points of view makes sense too. I don't think there's anything in history that you can't even begin to understand, even if you're reasonably sure (and occasionally certain) you could never have made those choices yourself. You don't need to get into anyone's head. In fact, when you look at any big group of people, you have to acknowledge that there are many different things going on in many different heads. 

I was thinking of this because of an interesting post by Emma, The Denial Barrier and Its Effects on Activism. Emma writes about the problems with getting people to think about disability inequality:
Becoming seriously sick (like developing cancer) or being maimed (loosing the use of limb(s), organ(s) or whole sections of ones body) is not a pleasant thought for most people. For many it mentally equates with being given a death sentence. As a result people's minds minimise the likelihood of it happening to them. The same seems to happen with other illnesses and serious accidents that could lead to disablement. People just don't want to think about it. Not because they are callous or uncaring, but because, in many way they are wired that way. It's the force that tells people disability is sad, just too depressing to think about.
Over the years, lots of Disability Awareness raising has been based on a principle that the problem of disablism would end if only everyone could imagine what it was like to be disabled. So there are awareness campaigns where folk describe what their day is like in detail, all the problems they encounter, all the symptoms they experiences, so that folk will finally understand. And there are the awareness exercises where folk put on blindfolds or sit down in a wheelchair for an hour or two, so they know exactly what it would be like to be blind or a wheelchair-user. Philippa wrote about this kind of thing recently in the context of a campaign asking people to pretend to be poor for a week.

Emma makes a very true point. Most people's lives will be touched by disability (although most people will never personally identify as disabled) and yet folk often talk about disability as if it is an extraordinary experience, confined to cute but poorly children or strapping but injured war heroes on the telly. Meanwhile, people frequently misinterpret information about life's inevitable risk-taking and health to mean that people who get sick brought it on themselves, as opposed to watch out - you might get sick too!

However, is this kind of denial a central barrier to getting people to oppose disability discrimination?

Well, I am white. Unless I emigrate, I will never be a member of an ethnic minority. There are common experiences of racism which don't come close to anything I ever have or will experience. I know it must hurt, because I am human. But it's so long since anti-racism was based on compassion for people of colour, that nobody asks me to imagine how it must feel. Occasionally, I see an American movie which makes this demand, before soothing me with some ebony and ivory, don't worry whitey ending and that makes me very uncomfortable. I object to racism because it is wrong; it is illogical and it is very dangerous. I don't object to racism because I have sat down and imagined what it would be like not to be white.

Disability politics does still involve demands on our compassion. There's still a huge element of playing on the heart-strings at the same time as demanding fundamental human rights and this frequently misfires. People read a newspaper account of what it is like to have the Dreaded Lurgy and think, "Poor thing! If that was me, I would be miserable!"  People sit for an hour in a wheelchair and think, "If I was a wheelchair user, my life would be terrible! Poor people!"

And there's another big problem with this emphasis on empathy, that Emma touches on when she talks about the mechanism of denial in feminism:
I regularly read blog posts from feminists telling of their shock when they were abused by someone close to them and that being a feminist didn't serve as a shield/radar. Many of these stories all have an uncomfortable touch of "I behaved in 'x' manner so I thought it wouldn't happen to me". These people were familiar with the statistics and the forms abuse can take but on some level didn't think it was ever going to happen to them. I'm not going to list all the ways denial makes getting the message out about gendered abuse, harassment, assault and horrid acts like Female Genital Mutilation difficult.
Even when people have direct experience of disability, abuse or any other form of oppression or discrimination, that's still no Get Out Of Fail Free card. Many disabled people express prejudice towards other disabled people. Many women who have experienced abuse or rape will hone in on a single mistake they imagine they made, or play down what happened or even make excuses for their abusers. It's not about abuse, but only today, there's an article on the BBC News website about the lack of women in top jobs entitled Are women their own worst enemy when it comes to the race to to the top? jam-packed with accounts from successful women talking about how useless women are at pursuing high-status careers. (For a much better read on the same subject, see The pseudo-science and pseudo-feminism of Women Don't Ask)

This is all still about comforting ourselves. In the past couple of years, when I've talked to folk about the cuts to disability benefits and social care, many people, including disabled people, have stated that the cuts are justified. Not for people like me, of course, or people like themselves, or people like the other disabled people in their lives - oh no, we deserve more than what we get! However, there simply must be droves of fakers and scroungers out there who need a kick up the proverbial. They simply must exist. The world isn't so unfair as to allow the government to cut benefits where 99.5% of claimants are legit.

Shiney, shiney, shiney boot of leather.
So part of the problem is definitely a Just World Hypothesis, but neither its root nor its solution lies in personal empathy. Given that the Earth is trodden by such a massive variety of shoes, some of which don't make a pair, we can't ask everyone to walk in everyone else's. It's not necessary, but neither would it be sufficient. Every pair of shoes and every lone shoe feel different. Some people don't wear shoes. Walking in a pair of size 7 cherry red patent leather twenty-eight hole Doc Martens, as I do, only gives me some limited insight into what it is like to walk in other pairs of stylish boots. It tells me little of Crocs or Jimmy Choos. But I do know that other human beings wear Crocs and Jimmy Choos and so I respect them and acknowledge that their rights are the same as my own.


Spoonydoc said...

"I don't object to racism because I have sat down and imagined what it would be like not to be white."

Actually to a certain extent I did exactly that. Not specifically as in one day I put aside an hour to do so. But after witnessing a racist attitude from my teacher of all people, I thought about what it would be like always to be judged not on what you had done but pre-judged simply on who or what you were. This struck me as absolutely terrible and I became a very vocal opponent not only of racism but homophobia.

Did I also think myself lucky to be white and not have to deal with racism? I really don't remember. Of course I then later became disabled and have encountered plenty of prejudice there so it would have been a bit premature anyway!

starrlife said...

I love this post- so interesting to think about. I am one of those who tend to believe in the idea that truly we ALL have our stuff that limits us, that anything can happen to anyone at any time and that keeps me in a more open perspective about abled vs disabled. It's not that I fear it, it's that I can imagine easily that it could be me at any moment - he who casts the first stone kind of thing. It's all so relative to what one considers ablebodied or different and the underlying values of worth based on function. So much to weigh and consider. Empathy vs pity is what I'm hearing. Pity is denial and fear masked. Empathy is looking at the whole pic and staying open to all ways of being.

The Goldfish said...

Thank you both (I thought I'd replied to these comments, but evidently not)

I guess we all come to things in different ways, and I think in this post I have muddled a bit the difference between general empathy - and the realisation that there is one small difference between having an identity or not, like skin colour or a physical injury - and thinking you have to (or indeed ever could) know exactly what it's like - which tends to draw you towards sympathy, when you realise how lucky you are.

I don't think I've got to the bottom of my own thoughts in this post, so thanks for the feedback. Still working this one out. :-)