Empathy is often described as standing in someone else’s shoes. This is a problematic metaphor because when we try to place ourselves in someone else’s circumstances we unavoidably take all our bias and our privilege with us.
I am a straight white cis man. I have never had any stranger or acquaintance talk about my body or the clothes I wear as if they had any ownership over me, as if their opinion should have any relevance over what I wear, whether I shave, etc. I’ve never had someone make an advance and when I pull away get called names for it. I’ve never made an advance on someone who reciprocated and been shamed for it. When I walk down the street or stand on the subway I have very little fear of violence used against me. So if you ask me to put myself in the shoes of a woman getting catcalled my first inclination would be: “I would love to be publicly acknowledged as attractive!” I don’t have the experience to know the fear of a stranger who sees my body as his plaything. Who sees me as a “puzzlebox” — and if he can only crack my puzzle he can get my body. I don’t have the experience to know that a catcall is one step from a slap on the ass which is one step from a grope or a forcing of my hand on him. I don’t see people like me get arrested for shooting a warning shot to hold back violent offenders. I don’t have friends or acquaintances who tell me they’re neutral (read: apathetic) to my basic human rights because they see my suffering as a political issue and they “don’t like politics”.¹
All this context, all this back-story, is just skimming the surface of what it would take for me to empathize with a (white or black or trans* or…) woman being catcalled. Which is not to say that empathy is impossible or pointless, but rather it’s much more than putting yourself in someone’s shoes, in someone’s circumstances.
Empathy requires an understanding of sociology and psychology. It requires an understanding of history and media. It’s not enough to know the direct forces on and conscious feelings of a person to know how a situation will affect them.
Actors are taught that we must know a character better than they know themselves. When we decide on our character’s motivations we then decide whether our character is aware of these motivations. Acting a character is this constant give and take between who we think we are and who we actually are, what we think we need and what we actually need. To me, acting is the craft of creating empathy. Between yourself and your character and ultimately between the audience and your character. It is not enough to live in the shoes of your character, you must be able to communicate what it’s like to be there to an audience. You have to show the audience the conscious and unconscious thoughts behind your words: the emotions and inclinations and fears and vulnerabilities; the instincts and the logic. You have to create such a deep empathy with your character and portray it so honestly that your audience wants to empathize with them. Wants to talk to them, ask them questions, study them, challenge them, be surprised by them.
Empathy requires surprise. Surprise occurs when reality differs from our conception of reality. When we think we know how something works or what’s going to happen and we are wrong. Surprise requires experience because it requires a mental model. If I tell you the capital of Liberia is Monrovia you’re likely not surprised because you had no reason to believe otherwise. But if, in 2006, I told you that Pluto’s not a planet you would likely have been surprised (I’m still in denial).
Which is all to say if you’re not surprised, you’re not empathizing. Empathy requires a conversation that lasts long enough to form a mental model of someone and then to have that model come into question. Empathy requires standing in someone else’s shoes and then walking around until your feet are even more blistered than theirs. You have to destroy part of yourself to empathize with them.
Empathy is violent. At least at the neuron level. It requires ripping up roads and pathways and exploding new action potentials. Your thoughts and your self are not separate entities; so to understand someone at an empathic level your thoughts need to be plagued and blessed with all the context of their experiences. Even the unconscious stuff. How do you get at that unconscious stuff? That’s another essay.
¹I’ve had a number of friends over the years who “don’t want to get into the politics of gay marriage.” Who pretend they can be neutral, as if inaction is not itself a form of action. As if someone’s basic human rights is “just politics”.