The Importance of Empathy
Most of us have been told, at least once in our lives, to try to “step into someone else’s shoes.” This cliché is often thrown out when it seems that someone is being selfish, or appears to have trouble understanding the problems other people face. Yet, it isn’t enough to simply put yourself into someone else’s shoes. You must be able to imagine what it’s like to be that someone else. Everyone has felt anger, satisfaction, frustration, relief, etc. It’s easy to notice emotions in others, but it is more difficult to understand why one person may feel certain emotions in a particular situation, even if you personally would not feel those emotions under the same circumstances. Even then, it is not enough simply to understand. You must care., which is why empathy is so crucial in our society and why it is the best tool to help end prejudice.
In “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Kimberle Crenshaw discusses the problems faced by women of color who have been raped. She explains that women of color are hesitant to report rape because they are more likely to experience more suffering from reporting the crime than from letting their rapist escape. Someone who lacks empathy would be likely to victim blame and perhaps say, “But it’s selfish not to report the crime because that means the rapist will target others in the future and that’s harmful.” Someone who is capable of empathy, however, would realize that the situation is complicated because women of color are practically invisible according to the law because the law was created without even considering the needs of people of color.
It should also be noted that it is also important to empathize with people who do not necessarily agree with us because it is much easier to communicate our own ideas to another if we can predict how the other person might respond. Sarah Ahmed uses empathy to create her argument in “The Organization of Hate” by explaining that “hateful” people do not realize they are being hateful and, in fact, believe they are doing the right thing and are even doing it out of love, according to what they believe is love. Once she helps readers understand the perspective of those they disagree with, she is more able to suggest a solution.
The biggest problem in relation to prejudice is that apathy is much easier than empathy. It’s easy to assume that all survivors of domestic violence are“clearly asking for it.” It’s difficult to accept that such horrible incidents can occur for no reason at all. It’s easy to claim that lower class citizens waste our tax money to avoid working. It’s difficult to realize that hard work doesn’t guarantee wealth.
If humans can learn to become more empathetic and attempt to learn what it is like to be someone else with different life experiences, we can begin to make a change. Apathy created the patriarchy. Empathy can create gender equality. Apathy created homophobia. Empathy can create acceptance.