Empathy, Language, and Reason

Ambrose Little
Sep 9, 2018 · 6 min read

Considering that “there is nothing new under the sun,” I’m sure that this, too, is not new. But it seems to me that it has become an increasingly facile rhetorical tool reached for by those who are either unable or unwilling to communicate their point of view in a convincing manner. I am speaking of the assertion that if one is not a thing, then one cannot speak to the reality of the thing.

  • If one is not a woman, one cannot speak to the reality of being a woman.
  • If one is not “of color,” one cannot speak to the reality of being “of color.”
  • If one is not married, one cannot speak to the reality of being married.
  • If one is not non-heterosexual, one cannot speak to the reality of being non-heterosexual.

(Oddly enough, we don’t usually hear the inverse of these.)

And the list goes on. This is manifested in terms like “mansplaining” and similar sentiments. This is manifested in the tacit (and not so tacit) expectation that a white person shut up and simply accept a non-white person’s point of view as unquestionably valid. This is manifested in various not-so-subtle implications that Catholic priests have nothing to say about sex and marriage, nor the “lived reality” of women. This is manifested in the insistence that any critique of non-heterosexual lifestyle by heterosexuals is de facto invalid (and “bigoted” and “phobic”).

Put simply, this assertion is a lie. And it’s a dangerous lie, because if you take it to its natural conclusion, it would mean that no human being can speak meaningfully to any other human being because we are all unique individuals; we all have unique DNA and unique “lived experience.” So, therefore, how dare we intrude and “force our opinions” on anyone else?? In such a case, “you do you” ought to be the true, actual rule of the day — no questions asked. No restrictions. In short, it is unvarnished moral and existential relativity. None of us has anything meaningful to say to the other, because we just can’t know what it is like to be that person.

Of course, no sane person would ever suggest that conclusion, and so we see the inherent problem with the assertion. Without denying the unique personhood and dignity of every individual human being, without denying their unique lived experience, we can actually speak meaningfully to each other’s existences; we can actually offer meaningful observations and suggestions and, sometimes, critiques. We can say that certain things are more or less good for each other, and society in general.

Without denying the unique personhood and dignity of every individual human being, without denying their unique lived experience, we can actually speak meaningfully to each other’s existences.

We all know this. But increasingly, we see these arbitrary and false lines being drawn around who can speak to whom about what. It is nothing more than rhetorical bullying, an attempt to silence others when what they say is uncomfortable or upsetting.

  • You, as a woman, can tell me meaningful things about being a man.
  • You, as a person of color, can tell me meaningful things about being white.
  • You, as a non-heterosexual person, can tell me meaningful things about being heterosexual.
  • You, as a single person, can tell me meaningful things about being married.
  • You, as a celibate person, can tell me meaningful things about sex and sexuality.
  • You, as a non-American, can tell me meaningful things about being American.
  • You, as an atheist, can tell me meaningful things about being a theist.

And vice-versa. And we can tell each other all sorts of other meaningful and potentially beneficial things related and not-related to our differences as well, of course. We can talk and reason about what’s best for us, individually, and as a society.

As humans, we have this really amazing thing called empathy. It enables us to do amazing things together, because it helps us to understand others without actually being others. We use it all the time, every day. Some of us — designers — do it professionally; it’s literally a designer’s job to empathize with and create something for others, often others who are in many ways not like us.

As humans, we have this really amazing thing called language. It enables us, however imperfectly, to use symbols outside of ourselves to signal to others what is inside our minds. We’ve even developed crafts based on such representation of our minds — art, especially literature and theater — that enables us to evoke empathy, to share stories and thereby better understand each other.

As humans, we also have this really amazing thing called reason. Reason enables us to draw on all these data of our own experience and the experiences shared by others through various symbols (languages, art) and to piece it all together and create bigger ideas about ourselves, who we are, why we are here, how we ought to be and to treat each other. We have built upon these basic talents and developed methodology in the sciences to help us to even more reliably understand the world and each other, and what works and doesn’t work.

Through these amazing abilities and skills we have created entire civilizations — shared lived realities that are so much greater than we as individuals could ever possibly even remotely achieve.

It’s true. We can’t really ever truly know what it’s like to be another person. Even considering shared attributes that we like to use to delineate ourselves into groups, those shared attributes only go so far. And yes, when we don’t personally share an attribute that another has, it makes us have to rely even more on empathy, language, and reason.

But we can do it. We can use these amazing human means to understand each other, to empathize with each other, to communicate with each other, and to reason about each other and those things that affect us. And so we can speak to each other meaningfully without being the thing that another is that we are not.

To say otherwise is a lie. It’s a lie that only drives us further apart. It’s a lie that only reinforces our differences, rather than increasing our empathy. It’s a lie that stokes hostility and resentment. It’s a lie that tears apart rather than builds up. It’s a lie that closes us off to potentially beneficial insights. It’s a lie that strangles diversity. It’s a lie that strikes at the heart of the cherished foundations of our modern democracy — equality and freedom.

It’s lazy. It’s bullying. It’s wrong. And we ought to stop doing it. Machiavellian justifications be damned. The next time you’re tempted by this lie, just remember: we’re all human beings. We all have these wonderfully amazing tools that help us understand each other despite our many differences, and instead of reaching for the easy way out to shut down and shut out another human being, try reaching for these other tools instead.

Here are some suggestions for a better way to deal with disagreement:

  • Listen. After all, you want to be listened to, right?
  • Have mutual respect. If for no other reason than our shared human dignity.
  • Extend generosity. Don’t presume bad intentions or motivations.
  • Employ mutual empathy. Don’t just seek to be understood — seek to understand.
  • Be willing to listen to even what is upsetting to you.
  • Try to see if there is any good in what is said by the other and if there is anything to learn from the other. If nothing else, you can at least understand their actual perspective, rather than some distorted caricature of it pandered by polemicists, talking heads, and politicians.
  • And be wary of social media. It tends to encourage the exact opposite of fruitful dialogue.

Then, after listening and seeking to understand, humbly offer your own perspective, data, and reasoning to them.

Remember that just because you may not change each others’ minds — in fact, you almost always won’t, right away — you can still both be good people, even if one of you is seriously mistaken. Remember that you might be the mistaken one, no matter how sure you are otherwise.

Most likely, all parties involved are mistaken in various ways. And so we should always be generous with each other. This is why diversity of thought is so important, even wrong, offensive, and disturbing thought. Often the conclusions drawn by others can be wrong, but they can have something true and valid to say that you can learn from. Those can be clues to find agreement and to build a path forward together.

I guarantee if you — we — follow the advice above, we will become better people. We will learn important things from each other. Our perspectives will be more mature and more aligned with reality. And we will better find ways to leave peaceably together, even though we disagree strongly.

Unless we actually like anger, bitterness, hatred, fighting, turmoil, and war, we need to get better about this stuff.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable…

Ambrose Little

Written by

Experienced software and UX guy. Senior Software Engineer at GLG. 8x Microsoft MVP. Book Author. Husband. Father of 7. Armchair Philosopher.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

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