Compassion and Empathy in Social Justice

I want to go a bit more personal and admit something that may or may not be a surprise to people: I have issues with empathy. Displaying empathy, accepting empathy, embodying empathy. It’s really not the easiest thing for me. Sometimes even when I feel very empathetic, it’s difficult for me to come across as such, which creates a lot of obstacles for me. I inevitably almost always sound more aggressive than I ever intend. Not only that, but I have no idea how to really accept empathy from others. I’ve become very aware that sometimes empathy isn’t even on my radar, just because I neither know how to fully display it nor am I aware of how to accept it when it comes to me.

One of the best quotes concerning empathy that I’ve read thus far that has always resonated with me is this: “We need empathy to give empathy”:

It is impossible for us to give something to another if we don’t have it ourselves. Likewise, if we find ourselves unable or unwilling to empathise despite our efforts, it is usually a sign that we are too starved for empathy to be able to offer it to others. Sometimes, if we openly acknowledge that our own distress is preventing us from responding empathically, the other person may come through with the empathy we need. – Non-Violent Communication

And recently, I’ve been reminded of it’s importance through another quote from the Anti-Intellect Blog, passed along to me through another friend: “Oppressed people oppress people”. As someone who compares marginalisation to interpersonal abuse and violence, this makes a lot of sense. Abusers within individual relationships are quite often people that have been abused themselves. In talking about consent toxicity, I’m reminded that within an environment where abuse is normalised, it becomes normal to abuse others and it becomes normal to not see that as abuse.

Draco's situation is a really good example of how individuals within oppressive situations learn to mimic those situations, even if they don't even necessarily want to.

Draco’s situation is a really good example of how individuals within oppressive situations learn to mimic those situations, even if they don’t even necessarily want to.

The next part of the quote that Son of Baldwin extrapolated on really struck me, however: “This notion that oppression teaches oppressed people how to be kinder and gentler and more respectful to others is basically bullshit.” And yet again, I’m reminded of my comparison. How can we learn to be compassionate with others when we are so un-compassionate towards ourselves? How can I learn to become empathetic when I have very little empathy for myself?

Being marginalised in different ways creates frustration, anger, sadness, and a collective core of all sorts of emotions that can become difficult to deal with. As a marginalised identity, you do not receive empathy from society on macro social contexts. This highlights the necessity for safe spaces for marginalised identities – because the obstacle of overcoming one’s own pain in order to be empathetic towards someone else may be too difficult. And that is what I feel like we struggle with fundamentally with marginalised identities in social justice circles. We all have issues where we lack empathy and we desire empathy. It becomes difficult for us to have empathy with each other thus resulting in the frustration another friend of mine expressed in a status update:

“Social justice folks be stressing me out sometimes. People go so hardcore with the accountability stuff that sometimes the behavior starts replicating hegemony. When your notion of good starts to look like violence that harms more people than it hurts, i don’t wanna engage. We need some mother fucking rainbow butterflies and bandaids and a reminder to be gentle and that folks are folks. That said, I’m still feeling disenchanted with how hegemonic the Queer community can be with the accountability processes and call-out mind frame. (also, i recognize that this status is also a call out and not that gentle).” – Jezebel Delilah X

I always feel very ambivalent about this issue. On the one hand, I do think that we as communities need to draw the line between what behaviour is okay when reacting to someone, even if that anger is righteous. As much as I disagree with Laci Green’s islamophobic and transphobic remarks, do I think sending her death threats and photos of where she lives is acceptable? No. As much as I understand the anger that comes with these things, I have to ideologically draw the line somewhere. Audre Lorde once said that “The masters tools will never dismantle the master’s house”.

I don’t think that violence in and of itself is permissible. As marginalised people, we have learned from our oppressors to oppress, and that is what Monty Python might jokingly call “the violence inherent in the system”. As funny as that quote is, there IS violence inherent in the system. And we need to acknowledge that. And we need to, within any marginalised identity, realise that there are certain lines we should not cross if what we’re doing has anything to do with morality or making a change.

 Anakin inevitably makes this choice when he decides to execute Count Dooku without the approval of the Jedi council. While it may be true that Count Dooku was more dangerous alive, certain laws have to be drawn at some point.

Anakin inevitably makes this choice when he decides to execute Count Dooku without the approval of the Jedi council. While it may be true that Count Dooku was more dangerous alive, certain laws have to be drawn at some point.

That said, I heavily, heavily dislike the opposite side of this spectrum: the side of “liberal bullying” and anti-call out culture. Because if you confront enough people you quickly learn that most privileged people will consider even the mention of “privilege” as an attack, that no matter how much you sugar coat the concept of inequality, some people will NOT take it. Not to mention, the idea of adding the extra burden on marginalised people to educate AND be sweet as cherry pie to their oppressors makes me sick.

How can we expect people to be not only empathetic, but happily educate others? This is not a cry for “manners” or for sweet talking oppressive individuals and taking the burden of their own education off of their own shoulders, oh no. The problem is that who gets to draw the line between “polite” dialogue and “destructive” dialogue is so very often the ones who have nothing to lose by ending the dialogue and continuing on without learning a single thing.

If we’re going to acknowledge that marginalization creates frustration and anger, we also must be realistic in understanding that that frustration and anger must be released. This is yet another good reason for exclusive social spaces based on marginalization: for the purposes of venting. You make jokes about misandry and #whitehistoryclasses so that you can get all of this toxic mess out. And keeping that toxic mess in certainly isn’t going to get anyone any closer to this empathy. Yes, feel frustration and rage toward Laci Green and other people who’ve made their own comments that have angered you. I’m not saying you can’t be mad at these people. We have to get mad. We have to let it out. Bottling it all up certainly isn’t a realistic option either.

I’m constantly reminded of Jane Elliot’s experiment with Blue/Brown Eyes. Removed from the situation, it always surprises me to see how angry/upset people get by her experiment, but she’s used to these types of reactions. And for some people any kind of suggestion like this will be interpreted as an attack and will be upset by it.


And who gets to argue what’s “constructive”? Sometimes talking politely isn’t so very constructive at all and does absolutely no good. So where are we to draw the line? Rather than phrasing this as, “your anger isn’t helping your cause”, I think it helps to think about this from the standpoint of self-care. We want empathy. We need that empathy. We’re not getting it from society and certainly not getting it from others. And while Non-Violent Communication recommends making those needs known, it also notes that giving empathy requires all of your presence and it requires being vulnerable. And the last thing you might want to do is be vulnerable towards someone who’s expressed an oppressive sentiment. And the last thing they might be able to do is give their presence and empathy to you.

I think where we can draw the line is where my friend Jezebel highlighted her response. When we begin to mimic our oppressors, when we begin to abuse others outside of the contexts of self defence, when we begin to use other forms of hatred (misogyny, white supremacy, ableism etc.) to insult or put down others. At a certain point within a debate or confrontation, there may be a point where you angrily say, “you’re ignorant, fuck you” and walk away.

That’s not what I’m talking about. I think it’s in the interests of self-care for us to avoid getting to the point in a debate where we’re hurling insults at someone. It’s not even a matter of being a good educator or championing your cause, it’s a matter of the fact that your time is precious and it shouldn’t be wasted on individuals who have absolutely no desire to listen or change.

I think Jane Elliot’s case is specific, because it’s an experiment people agree too. She clearly has no patience for people unwilling to change or listen, but utilises the same forms of abuse society leverages to demonstrate the effects of oppression. I wouldn’t disagree with that tactic as an excuse, but I think outside of an exercise and when it comes from a position of venting the anger you feel as an affected party, it becomes different. Elliot isn’t venting her personal frustrations with racism. She has no personal experience with racism. That’s a key difference.

In cases where you are privileged, I believe that part of being an effective “ally” (as much as I dislike the term) is extending empathy and trying to understand that you are given empathy in this particular context through society. For example, I am white and therefore privileged in a white supremacist society. While I may experience other issues related to my gender, sexuality, economic class, disability; within the broader contexts of race, I have the empathy of society. Not only should be fully present (listening) when it comes to discussions on race, I should always remember to come from a place of trying to understand the other person, rather than injecting my own feelings into the discussion.

While I certainly don’t always practice the concepts of non-violent communication, I found the concepts surrounding it useful and I’ve found the discussions and the points my friends have brought up useful as well. While I’ve also struggled with expressing and receiving empathy, I’ve also had issues with arguing and fighting past a point of self-care where I was not only wasting my time, but causing myself more stress and frustration in the end. So with all of these in mind, I want to recap a few basic principles:

  • You are taught and encouraged to be oppressive towards yourself and to others.
  • Someone who does not have any empathy is incapable of giving you empathy.
  • It is absolutely okay for you to set boundaries in your discussions. If you feel as though the other party is not listening, it is okay to walk away. You are not responsible for their education.
  • Anger is legitimate to feel, have, and express; especially in cases of self-defence. And everyone needs a safe space to express that anger or frustration.
  • When we bypass the point of self defence into becoming abusive ourselves, we have to look at reality of what we’re facing.
  • As with any form of “abuse”, when accusation of abuse or bullying are made, one must keep in mind the power dynamics of the situation. That is what separates memes like “misandry” or “white opinions” from actual structural oppression. A difference must be drawn between venting and frustration and structural violence and hegemony.
  • When we participate in our own or other kinds of structural violence and hegemony, despite experiencing marginalisation, we are doing ourselves an injustice.
  • While we can acknowledge that we live in an oppressive environment and that everyone has to begin unpacking that oppression and examining their own behaviours, it’s okay to feel frustrated by the unpacking others have yet to do.

These principles could always be taken and used by someone to deny privilege or culpability, I recognise. But that’s a threat you face no matter what you publish or do. I just want to make a reminder for us and our own self-care that we’re taught to be oppressive and maintaining that cycle hurts us and others. Hopefully the points I’ve laid out can lead to greater compassion and empathy in social justice.

Since I wrote this, I’ve changed my feeling concerning Non-violent Communication. I don’t feel it is very effective in real world applications. I would suggest reading this as an explanation of why.

This article was published in February 2013 and last updated in October 2014.


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