Casual Ableism: The Empathy Issue

(Content/Trigger warning: murder mention, ableist language, suicide mention.)

So I’ve just had a moment on Twitter where I was reading a (very well-put) set of tweets on how Cyber Bullying is a real problem. It is. It most definitely is, and it is 100% a problem that needs to be addressed properly and taken more seriously than it is. However, there was a statement in that set of tweets that stuck in my craw a little bit that went something along the lines of “empathy is the cornerstone of humanity”.

This, unfortunately, implies that people who lack empathy are, well, less than human. I regard the OP (original poster) very highly as a person and I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they weren’t trying to be ableist, however, statements like that very much are exactly that: ableist.

(I’d like to add that this isn’t a call-out post, this isn’t a jab at them, I’m not angry, but I am disappointed. Not with OP, but with the idea itself. Their post, however, was what got me thinking about this, and I am eternally grateful. I haven’t written here in a while and their tweets gave me something to chew over.)

When I pointed out that there are people out there (many of them autistic or otherwise mentally ill like myself) that cannot (as in, are unable to) feel empathy, they countered with the fact that they managed to put the effort in to feel empathy themselves, because their own mental illness was preventing them from doing so. The implication of this is that ‘if they tried harder, they could feel empathy too’… which is a statement that lacks empathy in and of itself. I don’t really blame them, not at all. I’m proud of them that they were able to make themselves empathetic towards others, and I’m glad they were able to make that effort (truly! you go, OP!), but…

This bothers me, and here’s why :

Not everyone is able to make themselves feel empathy, and not everyone is able to understand it. The simple fact of the matter is, the idea that you have to feel empathy to be a human being is completely backward. This idea leads people, some of these people being my own friends, to believe that they are broken. This is absolutely not the case. You don’t need empathy to be a human being, or even a good person. Play it right, and sympathy goes a long way too. But even if you were completely incapable of feeling sympathetic, your humanity would still not be in question. You are — and this is written for everyone out there who has empathy/sympathy problems — still human. You are valid.

See, there are a lot of mental illnesses and disabilities out there — I couldn’t even begin to list them all — that prevent people from being empathetic and even making themselves be empathetic. Sure, they can pretend, but that doesn’t mean they feel it. They might not even be capable of understanding it. I know some of these people. They can’t. They’ve tried. They’ve gone to therapy for years, seen multiple different people, and still, it’s just not there. And that is 100% okay. They’re still good people. They’re not killers, psychopaths, sociopaths or even bullies. They have families they love and kids and friends and pets and plants and jobs. They smile and laugh and have jokes and love to curl up in bed and watch Netflix. And they are not inhuman. Even if they hadn’t tried, even if they’d done absolutely nothing about it, they would still be just as human as myself or the next person.

The media constantly portrays them as evil, as subhuman, as ne’er-do-goods. I’m sure you have a good picture here, but let me spell it out clearly: the people who almost always get portrayed this way are serial killers, mass-murderers and killers. If those people truly lack empathy, then they are the bad eggs of those who do. A lack of empathy doesn’t suddenly up and make you want to kill everyone in a room with an automatic rifle (to use an extreme example the media constantly brings up). It might, but for the vast majority of people who lack the ability to be empathetic, it most certainly does not.

I sit on the other side of the empathy coin, where I experience hyperempathy, so I don’t know particularly well how it feels to be considered inhuman because I lack it, but I am mentally ill… and I definitely know how it feels to be considered inhuman because of that. And I’m not surprised. The media, and the neurotypical human population at large, need a scapegoat for when stuff like that happens and we have, for want of a better term, gigantic targets on our bodies. It’s an issue, and causes us more pain and trouble. It takes away the resources we need, it demonises us and puts us further into a spotlight we never wanted.

That’s why I write this post. I need to point out that when someone says something akin to ‘empathy is the cornerstone of humanity’ (to use OP’s example), they are harming the people who cannot create empathy, whether intentionally or not. (Once again, I absolutely do not, in any way, shape or form, believe that OP meant any ableism by what they’ve said.) And it’s… not okay. To constantly perpetuate in peoples’ minds the belief that they are a broken individual because they are lacking something that one considers a defining part of the human experience is just really, truly not okay. It’s the kind of thing that leads to people attempting to take their own life (and often succeeding).

Having tried to take my own life multiple times and being a person where suicidal ideation is something that ebbs and flows in my own mind, I know how much pain it puts a person in to think that they are broken, unfixable, and completely inhuman.

So please, what I ask of you, any of you, all of you who read this, think before you say something is the pinnacle of human existence. Be it empathy, sympathy, the ability to read, write, calculate, speak, see or hear, or even be able to smile, please. Don’t do it. You could save a life.