Like you, I think it’s vital to understand the inner workings of other minds, even abhorrent ones. So why did the phrase “empathize with rapists” create an instant feeling of revulsion in me?
I think that because we have been told all our lives to empathize with the poor, marginalized, and abused, and we have never been told to empathize with the wealthy, powerful, and abusive, the word “empathy” has taken on emotional coloring in our instinctive understanding of the word that goes beyond what it says in the dictionary. After all, we learn most words by intuition and extrapolation, not by looking them up in the dictionary.
I’m reminded of the time my Dad and I were in Greece, watching a news report that showed a gruesome, scream-filled beheading performed by some group in the Middle East. My Dad, a non-native English speaker, quietly said, “That was awesome.” My first reaction was shock and aversion, until I realized my Dad was saying the exact opposite of what I thought he was saying. Emotionally I felt that “awesome” is a word we use for things we love or are excited about. But checking the dictionary I saw that awesome can also refer to things that are “daunting” and fill us with “apprehension or fear.” Those were the shades of meaning he wished to draw on.
So I’m left wondering, “empathy” may be the right word according to the dictionary, but is it the right word in terms of having people understand what I’m trying to communicate?