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My Unfair Distribution Of Empathy

It is very hard for me to understand how other people don’t get the same information as I do and come to the same conclusions. I know that sounds silly because I’m the queen of empathy – but I seem to have an easier time having empathy for people in TOTALLY DIFFERENT situations as me, than I do for someone who lives a similar life as I do but makes entirely different choices even when exposed to the same information.

Someone over a decade ago pointed out to me that casually throwing around the word “retarded” was offensive to many people with mental disabilities or who loved people with mental disabilities. I was offended at first, I’m pretty sure I even ranted about “political correctness” in my head. But eventually? Once I put my pride aside? I accepted her polite correction and adjusted my language accordingly. YET – the same issue has gotten so big that there’s even an official campaign and people still refuse to change their language because they don’t like being told what they can and can not say.

If an uneducated person who isn’t exposed to people like me constantly posting links to stories about the End The R-Word campaign uses the word “retarded,” I can weirdly empathize with them because that was me 10 years ago. But someone who I know has heard of the efforts to rid the world of the casual use of it, yet still uses it? I struggle desperately to understand their point of view. I find myself getting more angry with them than with the poor Mom without the internet who is struggling just to pay her utility bill – much less have time to learn about campaigns to correct language.

The issue that this relates to currently is the response of “All Lives Matter” as a “protest” of sorts to the whole “Black Lives Matter” movement. At first? I had the same response in the days following Mike Brown’s death when the hashtag first gained popularity. “BUT ALL LIVES SHOULD MATTER!” But then, as usual, someone casually pointed out to me that the point is that all lives don’t matter. That the black community, especially in poor neighborhoods, see unjust deaths at the hands of police officers regularly and no one cares.

Since then there have been at least a million other metaphors used to explain it. There’s all houses matter, there’s the fair share of dinner metaphor. There’s quotes from everyone from John Steward to Trevor Noah. Every day now I see at least 50 GREAT explanations about how/why #alllivesmatter is unnecessary. About how #blacklivesmatter does not negate the value of other lives. Especially blue ones. I see defenses and explanations all over the place and YET…YET…people still insist: ALL LIVES MATTER without realizing that they’re not countering anything. OF COURSE THE #BLM COMMUNITY BELIEVES ALL LIVES MATTER. That’s the point. They WANT all lives to matter. But their deaths often do not.

I just really struggle when someone of my same race/class/education level gets the same information I do and does not come to the same conclusions. The same goes for the idea that many people still believe homosexuality is a choice. Even if a gay person explains to them, “No. This is who I am. I could no more choose NOT to love someone of my same gender than you could NOT to love someone of a different gender.” They still won’t believe it. They justify it with Satan, or blame it on society, or something. They don’t walk away with the same view I do, “Oh. Okay. So that’s just part of who they are. Why would I treat them differently for that?”

There’s really no point to this entry other than vocalizing this struggle lately. I really try to be the queen of empathy. I try to dig deep and understand how people become who they are and how they come to see the world how they do. I see a young black man raised in a broken family turning to crime and ending up in and out of prison his entire adult life and I think, I can see exactly how he ended up there. Put me in the same situation and I might have ended up the same place. I see his life of violence and I actually can empathize in a weird way because it’s so different from my life experience that I can somehow see myself taking the same path if you put me in his shoes.

But give me a middle class white woman in the same community as I am, exposed to the same resources and people, and she still uses the word “retarded,” thinks homosexuality is a choice, and constantly responds with #alllivesmatter to all of her #blm friends and I angrily think, I DO NOT UNDERSTAND HER AT ALL! I have an easier time offering empathy to the 60-year old black man in prison for murder than I do the soccer Mom who won’t share a bathroom with a transgender woman.

It’s a fault of mine, I know. And I’m really trying to dig into it to allow myself to be able to show the same empathy to people on my same walk but who have different interpretations, as I do for people on entirely different journeys. I guess I’m just wondering if anyone else has this problem? Anyone else have an easier time letting behavior and attitudes slide from people different from you are than people who seem very similar?

14 thoughts on “My Unfair Distribution Of Empathy”

  1. Thank you for being so thoughtful and sharing your reflections. Ironically, it makes me realize that one of the reasons I love your blog is because in many ways (at least the ones you share) we are similar and you often write the exact sentiments I have been thinking. So, yes, I 100% relate to your post; I struggle to accept people who are my peers in education and opportunity, but who believe in creationism, who think I’m nice but undeserving of the same rights as straight people, and who support Donald Trump. Until I read this post, I’m not even sure I was interested in working on my lack of empathy for this crowd. Thanks for giving me something to think about.

  2. I too do the same. I can always imagine I might behave a certain way if I lived a different life but those who are similar…. WHY DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND? Sorry. This was all about you finding empathy for similar people and I just yelled at them. I may not be a good person.

  3. We are life long learners. We need to listen and learn. Someone like your friend is puzzling. Or they may just totally not agree. However the woman that does not see the issue with the retarded just isn’t listening. The other one that drives me is Oh he rides the short bus.

  4. I think one thing that causes people to come to different conclusions are all the things in their world they experienced before they are now – maybe something happened or didn’t happen when they were younger that imprinted something so strongly that they can’t change that view or the new information isn’t enough to override that – just because she’s now a 40 year old white woman of your similar education and status now but you don’t know where she was in all the other points of her life which was building the foundation of ideas in her head.

  5. And that’s why I’m trying b/c I know there are things that still make us different. I just am more closed to it for some reason.

    I often think my compassion for people on government assistance is because I was on government assistance in a past life, so that’s probably not something everyone else relates to as easily as I do. (Although, I know plenty of people even currently on government assistance who preach against it. So who knows!)

  6. Not to be argumentative, but since January 1, 2015, there have been 381 black people shot and killed by police. And, of course, every single one of those lives matters. But I think that your assertion that black people living in poor communities see death at the hands of police regularly is really an unfair assessment. They do, unfortunately, see far too much violence and that must be addressed, of course.

  7. I’m not sure what is argumentative, because I’m not sure what you’re correcting. Do you mean my use of “regularly”? Maybe that was just my own privilege speaking because I never see it personally but my local news reports a death in a poor minority community at least once a week it seems. So I think that’s why I used the word “regularly” – is that what you were addressing?

  8. I am totally the same. I do notice that the friends I have who are not on the same ideological path as me tend to diverge at political affiliation, so there’s that. So that would be one way to reframe the question: how do I empathize with someone on the other side of the political fence as me? To me, that is MUCH harder than overcoming cultural or demographic differences.

  9. I agree 100%. I have some of the worst arguments with relatives, (mostly in-laws), who grew up similarly to me, but have very different views about people who aren’t like them. I also struggle with the views of people I grew up with – we spent childhood together and yet turned out very differently. I think that I am teaching my children tolerance and an awareness of others. I hope I’m getting it right!

  10. It’s funny: from where I sit, you seem to be very accepting of folks who don’t agree with you. It’s honestly one of the things I love about you. I think you and I have a lot of opposing ideas, but I feel like if we sat down and discussed some of these issues without either of us changing our viewpoints, you wouldn’t treat me any differently than if we were 100% in agreement.

  11. Math is not my strong suit, but if I calculated correctly, that’s 21 deaths a month. More than every other day. Is that not considered regularly? (Honest question, I’m not trying to be confrontational.)

  12. I think my comment was addressing your belief that people in poor communities (or any community) regularly see death “at the hands of police”. That just is not true. Yes, there are too many. Yes, every death is horrible. 21 a month in a country of 300 million people? No, that is not regularly. And please let’s not assume that none of those 21 people a month are honestly threatening the life of an officer or others when they are shot, because some of them are. Is shooting them ideal? OF COURSE NOT.

    I think it would be much more truthful to say that people in poorer communities deal with death/murder/violence on a much more regular basis than people in other communities. And this is a tragedy, a HUGE one. And it is one that I personally hope that all people can come together and address. We cannot continue to allow some communities to be “forgotten” or considered “unimportant”.

  13. I had to go back and reread my post b/c in my head I spoke about the “regular deaths” outside of the hands of the police. Because when I wrote this entry I was thinking of a local murder of a black teen who was stealing something out of the back of a guy’s truck and he shot him. And to me it was SO DEVASTATING but it go media attention for about a day.

    But you’re right – I did reference it to police action and that’s my error. I meant just – in general – deaths in poor communities go unnoticed. I apologize and agree with you. I really wasn’t even thinking entirely about death at the hands of police, I was thinking about missing black girls getting no media whereas cute little white girls get tons, things like that. Not sure why my words came out so focused on police violence. My error. My brain was in a different narrative than my words.

  14. Brain errors happen to me all of the time! And I completely agree that these incidents ARE devastating. And you are so correct – missing or murdered black children aren’t usually plastered all over the news/internet/social media. I don’t quite understand how we think any and all children aren’t precious. I just wish there was a way to tell the people who control how those messages get out and how widespread they are or are not that we care about ALL of the cases. Not just the little blonde girl with pigtails.

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