On the Dark Side of Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and share feelings of another. To place oneself in other’s shoes, metaphorically speaking. And nowadays, many people wish for the world to be more empathetic, because they think it will unite society. Problem is, they are wrong.

Much like everything else in this world, empathy is a coin with two faces. One that is being looked at from only one, positive side.

As described previously, empathy is the ability to understand and share feelings of another. In some cases, this ability to understand does indeed lead to sympathy. But the ability to understand feelings can also cause a wish or will to try and exploit those feelings, or to cause negative feelings for one’s own satisfaction. In short, sadism is not opposite of empathy – rather, it is empathy’s dark side. As Fritz Breithaupt pointed out, “Sometimes we commit atrocities not out of a failure of empathy but rather as a direct consequence of successful, even overly successful, empathy”.

Empathy can polarize people and lead to conflicts. Humans are very quick to take sides – and when one takes a side, they also take the perspective of that side. This means that person sees good and/or painful parts of one side and evil parts of the other side, while ignoring evil parts of the side they had taken and good parts of the side they oppose. Result is often what can be easily termed “black and white insanity” (there is even TvTropes page on it), where one side is entirely good and the other entirely evil. Thus, attempts to force empathy can easily excarberate conflicts instead of solving them.

In its darker moments, empathy can easily breed sociopathy. While psychopaths have weak or nonexistent ability to feel empathy, sociopaths have a very keen, very developed sense of empathy. Where they differ from other people is their nonexistent sense of morality. Instead of using empathy to guide their actions in a productive way, they use empathy as a weapon, manipulating others for their own personal gain. It is thus no surprise that elected politicians are, almost as a rule, sociopaths. Not psychopaths – sociopaths, and the nature of elective democracy essentially requires them to be such, as they have to manipulate people’s emotions in order to be elected.

But even sympathy can be damaging. It can cause micromanagement (such as helicopter parenting) which ultimately damages the very person or people it is meant to protect. And of course, one should not forget that some of the greatest evils in the world – such as Communism – were born from perhaps genuine feelings of sympathy and empathy with and for the downtrodden. Feeling of empathy often causes people not to consider the long-term consequences and the downsides of the actions they are taking, considering or advocating. It may also generate a misguided feeling of sympathy – a classic case of the farmer and the viper, where empathetic person allows mistreatment because he or she understands what made the bully a bully. Actual behaviour, and even reality as a whole, will get overlooked in favor of feelings. Domestic violence and toxic relationships are a classic case of this, but the entire societies can easily engage in such behavior.

Yet empathy is something that is hard baked into human beings. We cannot get rid of it, because doing so would deny our own humanity. It is also fundamentally necessary – not for the receiver of empathy, but rather for the empathizer. Empathy is a consequence, and a prerequirement, of social life. All social mammals can empathize, feel sadness, anger, and also turn into sadists. On an individual level, empathizer feels less alone, and also shares in the experiences of other people, enriching his own life.

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