With this post, I begin an occasional series called Mistake of the Week — in which I’ll explore “obvious” howlers that nevertheless show up in many different contexts, are made by people who should know better, and do real damage in the world. If you like, you can retroactively consider my post But What If? to be part of this series.
(Note that, as in This Week’s Finds by John Baez, the word “week” means there will be at most one installment per week, not at least one.)
This week’s mistake is that empathy — the ability to imagine yourself into someone else’s skin — is basically the same as sympathy. In reality, these concepts are not just subtly different: they’re often directly opposed to each other!
Scam artists, stalkers, abusers, rapists, and serial killers often have tremendous empathy for their victims. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t know how to scope them out, isolate them, and prey on their vulnerabilities. In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker discusses research showing that attempts to “cure” psychopaths by teaching them empathy can make them even more dangerous.
Of course, the world champions of empathy are the guys with dozens of nicks on their bedposts. It’s precisely because they understand women that they’re able to exploit them for their own enjoyment.
So that was empathy without sympathy. What about sympathy without empathy?
I was in Berkeley on 9/11, and many students I talked to in the weeks afterward thought that America basically deserved it. In their analysis, if the US had only ratified the Kyoto Protocol, increased its aid to the developing world, etc., it would have had nothing to fear from al Qaeda. It struck me that these students had considerable sympathy for the 9/11 hijackers, but no empathy for them. They couldn’t understand Mohammed Atta on his own terms — only through the lens of their own values and beliefs. (Predictably, America’s homegrown fundamentalists showed much greater empathy. They understood immediately what their Islamic counterparts were up to.)
History is full of bad people who achieved their goals because good people failed to empathize with them. “But surely this Mein Kampf must only be bluster, written for internal political purposes. There’s no way Hitler could actually believe what he wrote — he’d have to be a lunatic!”
Alright, it’s too easy to bring up examples that everyone already knows about. So here’s a different one: have you ever heard of a feminist writer named Valerie Solanas? If you haven’t (say, because you were born after the 60’s, like me), then I invite you to take the following empathy quiz.
In 1967, Solanas wrote a booklet called the S.C.U.M. Manifesto (S.C.U.M. stands for “Society for Cutting Up Men”). In it, she argues that the human male is a “walking abortion” and an “emotional cripple,” and calls for eradicating men and creating an all-female society. Any man who resists is to be killed. Once women rule the world, however, the few remaining men will kindly be permitted to “exist out their puny days dropped out on drugs or strutting around in drag or passively watching the high-powered female in action,” or else to “go off to the nearest friendly suicide center where they will be quietly, quickly, and painlessly gassed to death.”
Solanas is vague about what her female utopia will be like; however, it will definitely be “groovy.” “In a female society,” she writes, “the only Art, the only Culture, will be conceited, kooky, funky females grooving on each other and on everything else in the universe.” There will be no need for a government or even a money system. (Hence, no shoe shopping.) Solanas strikes today’s reader as perhaps too sanguine about technology: after the male scientists have been murdered, she writes, women will be able to build a fully-automated society within weeks, and eliminate death and disease within years.
(Incidentally, curing death is only one way Solanas’s utopia could perpetuate itself after the sperm banks have run dry. Another way, which she doesn’t discuss, is cloning from stem cells.)
In short, the whole thing reads like Rush Limbaugh’s fantasy of what feminists believe. That’s why I was surprised to learn that, far from being universally condemned, the S.C.U.M. Manifesto has been praised by feminist leaders such as Ti-Grace Atkinson, assigned in women’s studies courses, and distributed by government-run women’s shelters in Sweden. What’s going on here? The answer seems to be that, for many readers, Solanas’s “final solution to the male problem” is so outlandish that no one, including Solanas herself, could possibly intend it literally. Instead, her proposal must be interpreted as an ironic critique of patriarchal assumptions, or something like that.
Here, then, is my empathy quiz. Read the S.C.U.M. Manifesto, trying as you do to imagine what it would be like to have written it. Then answer this question: does the author strike you as a clever ironist, or as a sincere psychopath who might actually try to kill someone? You can check your answer here.