Empathy – a revolutionary act

If we want a radical feminist revolution that overturns our current ways of thinking and responding to the world, I believe, and I’m not alone, that this begins (and ends) with empathy.

The style of thinking that characterises patriarchy/kyriarchy is individualistic, self-orientated, and based on competition, control and domination. It comes from a false belief that these are the natural drivers of human nature, a belief that is unfortunately self-reinforcing.

In contrast to this, it is becoming increasingly clear that humans (men and women, that is – we are not separate species) have been so successful not because of some “kill or be killed” “survival of the fattest” instinct, but because of our relational nature; our ability to collaborate and cooperate. Relatively small, weak and vulnerable as we are, it was our ability to work together that got us through the last ice age and beyond.

Neuroscience has taught us that the formation of our brain happens as much after birth as before, and this development is entirely dependent on relationships (click here for a stark image of human brain development in the absence of relationships). We now also know that people heal from psychological problems and trauma through relationship – relationship quality has been shown to be the main component of successful psychotherapy, for instance, and in healthcare settings we now understand that relationships are important protective factors in things like dementia care.

The main driver of this essential human development tool is empathy; quite possibly the single most important survival technique we possess.

Let me come clean; as a Rogerian counsellor I’m thrilled that people are beginning to recognise the importance of empathy in human development. Empathy is pretty much the cause I am working towards in my personal and professional life. When I started my Facebook page, Lesbians and Feminists Against Transphobia my purpose was to build empathy between feminist, lesbian and trans* communities. Although this was intended to be a reciprocal process, and the empathy needs to be two-way, I was motivated by the institutional transphobia I had encountered within lesbian and feminist circles towards trans* people, a phenomenon entirely based in lack of empathy. This mattered to me because I witnessed the social exclusion of trans* people as having a profoundly detrimental effect on their psychological wellbeing.

Let’s go back to how much human relationships, driven by empathy, protect us from psychological distress and trauma. And then let’s think about the devastating social and personal impact of unhealed trauma. Now, let’s remember that trans* people are a considerable minority, vulnerable to trauma, and that inevitably many of the people surrounding them will be non-trans (cisgender) people. Therefore, while it’s less likely trans* people will contribute significantly to the emotional wellbeing of cisgender people in general, it is inevitable that people who are not trans*, being such an overwhelming majority, will significantly contribute to the wellbeing of trans* people, in much the same way heterosexual people have a disproportionate impact on LGB people, and able bodied people impact disabled people.

We may need to redefine our understanding of how we bring about social change in light of our better understanding of the importance of empathy. If people develop self-understanding and psychological coherence through being listened to and understood, we could question what use there is in developing opinions and theories about people in the absence of dialogue with the people themselves. Some might even suggest that diagnosing and theorising about people without their involvement is inherently paternalistic – the very essence of a patriarchal approach.

If we come to accept empathy as a necessary counterbalance to oppression, we should understand that a choice not to empathise with a vulnerable minority group will cause damage to people within that group. By excluding groups from our circle of empathy we share a responsibility for the psychological damage they experience. This may be hard to hear, but those of us who hold privilege in relation to trans* people (and despite my position under the trans* umbrella I include myself in this) share a responsibility for the unnecessarily high level of suicide within the trans* community.

We need to work on our empathy, because human lives are at stake. First and foremost, that means we need to improve how we listen.

7 thoughts on “Empathy – a revolutionary act

  1. Pingback: Empathy - a revolutionary act | Empathy and Com...

  2. singingbirdartist

    Also when we exclude others we create pockets of judgement and distrust that make our life and world threatened and threatening: we start to judge ourselves and we make enemies who we build into monsters – horrible. I attend a Quaker meeting and love a quote I’ve seen in a history quilt there:
    “Build a silver bridge for your enemy to retreat on”
    – why is this important, particularly if the enemy is a real hater? By showing compassion and respect and encouraging towards change we build a bridge to being able to work together, and as a happy side effect, we stay open to working on our own stuff.
    I am very aware that this sounds far too high-flown, but I have had to bite the bullet and accept that as a survivor, my reactions to abusers are extremely visceral. But do I want them to change? As people drift from a place of balance, demonising them will not encourage them to re-find their humanity/balance.
    The transphobic feminists make me grind my teeth – literally, I have fibromyalgia! – but driving them out to a place they cannot return from is counterproductive. Asking (gently) how they sustain this fear and hate may change more minds than we know…and keeps doors open that help anyone and everyone.
    Oof, I hope I haven’t been too longwinded, for a better exposition of what I mean, please read Starhawk’s ‘The Fifth Sacred Thing’, a novel with hundreds of details that fill out my idea of how a better society would be truly inclusive. ( but trigger warnings for violence/war/abuse of children)
    all good wishes!

    Reply
    1. Sandy Hope Post author

      I couldn’t agree more, singingbirdartist – I do have to work hard on my empathy for TERfs, because their hate kept me in a dark closet for so long, but I know my own survivor history led me down exclusionary, angry paths once too. By the way – “The Fifth Sacred Thing” is pretty much my favourite book of all time :-)

      Reply
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  4. Pingback: Yuletide Peace and Empathy | A Feminist Challenging Transphobia

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