“Understanding both sides”: empathy or cruelty?
Waking up on the 25th November, Domestic Violence Awareness Day, and upon seeing all of the usual Facebook posts about people telling women “they are not alone”, that support exists, that violence is not tolerated, I sighed. Women are alone. But then I thought of it, and everyone is alone. Does that make it better? No. For the purposes of this piece, I would like to focus on those people who have been victimized twice: the first time by their abusers, and the second by all those who chose to show the devil some sympathy. I come from Greece, a country which has and will continue to justify femicides because the murderer decides to turn to God and become a faithful monk of some sort after trial. That sure shows his good faith. After all, God teaches us it is loving to give second chances. Is it love or is it masochism though? Or even worse, subtle abuse? I am often occupied by two thoughts; “how alone can we possibly be?”, and “why do we go out of our way to show empathy where we should not?”. Today I will only be bothered with the second one.
Empathy is a skill which combines cognition and emotion. Although it is demanded of humans to be empathetic towards each other, few of them really practice it. Why is it that in cases of transparent abuse we tend to ask for more details before we condemn an action as cruel? It is a rather rare occasion for empathy to strike us, and yet it does. It is the element of toxicity in those cases of empathy that I wish to discuss. At the utmost root of discrimination, we strive to understand both sides. And what strikes me is that we do not do that for every single thing in our daily lives, so it is not our norm. It is as if we find a reason we can agree with behind the cruel action, then maybe we could believe we do not live in such a twisted world. Unfortunately, people trying to be empathetic at the wrong timing does more harm than good. Because it is not empathy, it is cruelty in disguise. Not surprisingly, people breaking down after all the trauma have to also deal with all the other people with good intentions “wanting to understand the situation better”. How is it that when hurt parties ask for understanding, empathy, and better treatment, then people are not so willing to give back? In many everyday cases, we do not go out of our way to understand the oppressed party. And yet, society will always give a respectable benefit of the doubt to oppressors.
When we meet or hear about survivors of abuse, they are mostly in a vulnerable state of mind, because that is a frequent consequence of trauma. The abusers on the other hand look like very calm and logical people. And that makes people root for them. Because we have not been taught to be empathetic to everyone, we have been told to examine facts cognitively and compare situations in order to judge and label someone “good” or “bad” in our minds. We have been taught to be empathetic to people who “look” like victims, poor, sad, silent people. Not people who scream for help. Not people who make us face the ugly truth. We forgot we are not judges, but most importantly, we forgot how to be humans. Dealing with someone else’s emotional self might be awkward, but emotional incapability should not lead to the level of cruelty that comes with supporting an abuser.
Another factor in this is the role art and popular culture plays in shaping personalities. We very often romanticize abuse because a lot of works of art have portrayed abusers as tragic heroes, misunderstood and therefore justified. The underdog. Not all abusers are narcissists. But what makes us roots for narcissist abusers in movies is the fact that the plot revolves around their image, and thus everyone else is a background character to their collateral damage. It is the intention of art to create an image of the world, but it is the responsibility of people to not confuse art with life. From literature to cinema, we have come to empathize with abusers because after all, they are just hurt people. It is very easy to throw ethics out the window, but as stated above, life consists of actions, and as much as intentions matter, so do the consequences. It is, after all, a trend of the times to admire people who do bad things because they look more interesting (more drama involved) and more unique, hence more deserving of our admiration than an everyday person who lack the uniqueness we think psychopaths do. But boring is sometimes healthy. Art has its fair share in helping us feeling empathy for sociopaths and psychopaths, because the focus is put on how society is unfair, and everyone else but the protagonist seems as an indifferent person to deal with.
Thinking of all the people who did not manage to get home some night, and not because of their own irresponsibility, but because someone decided they had to be less, they had to remain marginalized, that they did not deserve any better. I wish we could feel some amount of pain for all the people who survived something violent, physical or emotional, and now have to carry this trauma through the rest of their lives. A lot of them are not behaving badly towards others as a form of punishment for their trauma. Is there some sort of empathy when one chooses to not be a narcissist or a psychopath? Some sort of reward? Truth be told: everyone is capable of anything. Placing a sympathetic traumatic background story on an abuser makes it that much easier to live in denial and support them in one way or another. Trauma does not justify cruel behavior as it is not equal with “victimization”. At some point curiosity becomes tolerance.
Author: Sapfo Spyridakos
Image created by Marietta Mato Kalioraki