According to Psychology Today, empathy is “the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective”. Empathy is a useful tool that allows us to comprehend (on some level) the lived experiences of others. Alongside compassion and sympathy, empathy is what leads many to: make donations to organizations providing recovery in the wake of natural disasters, protest in the streets about the racially biased USAmerican criminal justice system, or show their support for a terminal patient seeking to end their life. These actions illustrate what happens when we give a shit about the lives of others, regardless of whether or not we have a firsthand experience of their plight.
I like to think I’m an empathetic person. I do give a shit about the plight of others. I think empathy is one of my strengths and I try to ensure that it extends not just to people who are like me, but to those who are not. Like those people who identify as women. I know that those who identify as women regularly deal with all manner of sexism and misogyny, such as:
- being harassed and bullied, or receiving rape and death threats for sharing their thoughts online
- dealing with condescending mansplanations
- being slut-shamed for having sex
- facing street harassment from entitled men
- being victimized by transphobic assholes
As a man, I do not have firsthand experience of any of the above. I don’t know what it is like to live as a person who identifies as a woman. To understand their experiences, I have to put myself in their shoes. Empathy allows me to do that. It allows me to understand-on some level-what it might be like to live as a someone who identifies as a woman. That sounds good on paper, but what does it look like in practice?
When I look at something like the continuing efforts by conservative politicians to limit women’s access to abortion:
State Rep. Justin Harris (R) is spearheading HB 1424, which seeks to strengthen his state’s parental consent requirements for minors seeking an abortion. It’s one of a slew of anti-choice restrictions that the Arkansas legislature is currently considering.
Right now, Arkansas residents under the age of 18 can only get an abortion after getting consent from one of their parents. The court system can excuse them from this requirement if they go through what’s a called a judicial bypass procedure. Or, if they became pregnant as a result of incest, rape, or sexual abuse, they can claim an exemption to the law and waive the consent requirement.
Harris’ bill would tighten those requirements, removing the current exemption for victims of sexual crimes — making those minors’ abortion access dependent on permission from parents they may not feel safe confiding in.
I think to myself “If I were a young girl who was pregnant as a result of rape, how would I feel about this proposed legislation?” If I identified as a girl and chose to remain pregnant, there’s no problem–for me. But if I identified as a girl and wanted to be NOT pregnant, there would be a problem. If I identified as a girl, wanted to be NOT pregnant, and knew that my parents opposed abortion, there would be a very big problem. Especially if I wanted to end the pregnancy as quickly as possible. It wouldn’t be fair to make me dependent upon my parents permission to obtain an abortion. It’s not their body. It’s mine. The choice should be mine.
All of that ↑ ?
That’s me empathizing with people who identify as girls or women. That’s me putting myself into their shoes and imagining what their situation might be like. No, it’s not the same thing as being in their shoes. I’m not likely to ever have firsthand experience of the realities of living and identifying as a girl or woman. But it’s probably as close as I can come to understanding the shit they face. My support for easily obtainable, inexpensive (hell, FREE would be great), fully legalized abortion is due, in large part, to my empathy. Unfortunately, on a regular basis I read stories about people who don’t give a shit about people who are not like them. Stories like Ashley Brady’s:
Ashley Brady, 26, of Miamisburg, said she lost her leg in an accident in 2014 and learned to walk again with a prosthetic, but she found walking on ice posed a brand new set of challenges.
“I struggled a lot across the snow and ice in the parking lot trying to learn how to balance and walk,” Brady told WKEF-TV. “I fell multiple times all of which my neighbors have seen.”
Brady said management at her apartment complex agreed to give her a handicapped parking space near the door to her building March 12, but someone without a placard started parking in the spot Saturday. Brady said she left a note on the vehicle.
“I was stern and confident in what I was saying and just letting her know she doesn’t know what its like to walk around without your own leg,” Brady said, “She in return had placed this really rude note under my windshield wiper.”
I should warn you: rude note is very, very rude. It reads:
“Hey handicap! First, never place your hands on my car again! Second, honey you ain’t the only one with ‘struggles.’ You want pity go to a one leg support group! You messed with the wrong one! I don’t care what your note said shove it, but you touch my car again I will file a report, I am not playing! I let the office know the cry baby one leg touches my property I will cause trouble so go cry your struggles to someone who cares cause I’m walking away with both mine! -[expletive].”
The callousness. It burns!
First off, it’s fucking insulting to refer to Brady as “handicap”. She is not defined by her physical disability and doing so is an example of othering. Othering allows us to deny the humanity we share in common with others and lets us dismiss their concerns as unimportant or trivial. Just like rude letter writer did.
Secondly, rude letter writer shows more care and concern for a car than for another human being. I wonder how they’d like to be treated if they had a physical disability. Would they like it if others treated a car as more important than taking the time to be considerate of their situation?
Methinks rude letter writer needs an empathy upgrade. Stat.