Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Empathy and the Credibility of Lived Experience

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings and experiences of another person from their perspective, and it’s sorely lacking in our day-to-day interactions with each other.

It’s certainly in short supply on the internet, where people tend to experiment (often anonymously) with inflammatory, verbal sadism they would never dare to indulge in real life, and which they don’t necessarily endorse or even believe.

One root of this is a lack of empathy, but where does a lack of empathy come from? In part, it comes from the refusal to give presumptive credibility to someone else’s lived experience.

It is simply not possible for a person who lacks a particular lived experience to opine with authority on that experience, yet we do it anyway. 


It’s a normal human instinct to get defensive when someone points out the blind spots in our empathy. Most of us, myself included, are invested in defending ourselves against charges of racism, sexism, or any other “ism,” to the extent we bother to give those “isms” more than passing thought if we don’t have to, and to the exclusion of the unpleasant alternative that we are wrong.

Which means we miss the opportunity to learn something new by taking other people at their word, even and especially when their word conflicts with our preferred vision of ourselves.

I thought about all of this when I woke up to the news that Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones was subjected to racial taunts and had peanuts thrown at him at Fenway Park at a game last night. The Red Sox organization was quick to denounce and apologize for the conduct, and even the Governor of Massachusetts tweeted that “this is not what Massachusetts and Boston are about.” 

But predictably and just as quickly, the internet was ablaze with denial, vile invective, and refusal to accept Mr. Jones’ account as true or credible, immediately giving the lie to Governor Baker’s words.

It’s a dirty little secret and a point of historical fact that racism is exactly what Boston, Massachusetts, and indeed most of New England are “about," and most non-white people who have ever lived there will tell you so. 

A supposedly enlightened northeast city like Boston--arguably the most vibrant intellectual community in the country--likes to think of itself as above the base white supremacy of the hicks in “flyover country." But again, the people with lived experience there know it’s not. 

That experience deserves a presumption of credibility. You might not like it, but you should believe it.

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