On the place of empathy in social justice movements

Teal Deer


It’s unfortunately very common for people to weaponize empathy — to call for empathy in order to tell people seeking justice to be quieter. Due to this frequent occurrence, I think it is common for people to view practicing empathy as antithetical to achieving justice. In this essay, I argue that the act of truly practicing empathy is much different than what is prescribed by many people who call for empathy, and that truly practicing empathy dovetails with (rather than opposes) justice.

The tension between empathy and justice

As a follow-up to my summary of Nonviolent Communication, I wanted to touch on an important aspect of NVC: how it relates to fights for justice. I think there is often a tension between, on one hand, fighting for justice, believing you’re right, being angry and rightfully so, needing validation of one’s emotions, wanting to be understood, being cheered on and energized by people who also get it; and on the other, being open and empathetic to people who say you “shouldn’t” be angry, acknowledging other people’s emotions when they haven’t extended the same courtesy, spending significant time and effort to understand others who don’t understand you, spending time engaging with and being drained by people who don’t get it, etc.

There are understandable concerns that to practice NVC is (1) to practice submissiveness and docility, and/or (2) to waste one’s time investing emotional labor into people not willing to reciprocate. The author takes some time to address the first issue:

If we are truly angry, we would want a much more powerful way to fully express ourselves [than violence — killing, hitting, blaming, hurting others — physically or emotionally].

This understanding comes as a relief to many groups I work with that experience oppression and discrimination and want to increase their power to effect change. Such groups are uneasy when they hear the term nonviolent or compassionate communication because they have so often been urged to stifle their anger, calm down, and accept the status quo. They worry about approaches that view their anger as an undesirable quality needing to be purged. The process we are describing, however, does not encourage us to ignore, squash, or swallow anger, but rather to express the core of our anger fully and wholeheartedly (p. 141)

I think it is important to preserve this aspect of NVC: that it is very much about achieving change, communicating the pain and unmet needs of fellow human beings, working to meet them, and holding people accountable for how their actions create situations of despair, desperation, and personal tragedy. That’s what it’s all about: universal human needs, human connection, and human justice.

Of course, the second issue could still be at play if NVC is not actually effective at changing people’s minds. Then it could be compatible with justice, but just ineffectual. However, evaluating the effectiveness of NVC requires putting it into practice at least temporarily — I think it’s worth a shot.

The thin line between understanding someone’s ideas and endorsing them

I think another worry about extending empathy is that it will be identical to validating, approving, or extending forgiveness toward people’s thoughts, positions, actions, etc. It’s a legit worry that spending a lot of time in someone else’s head, rephrasing their thoughts and mirroring them back, will have the effect of saying “I understand just what you mean! This is so relatable. Yeah, they wronged you!”

And NVC is uncomfortably close to that. In both the examples in the book and my experience, when you’ve understood what someone is feeling and thinking, they will feel validated — they get energetic, they start on a rant letting out all their indignation, etc. having found a receptive audience. Indeed, if you let the conversation drop there, they may come away thinking there’s someone out there who agrees with them and finds their positions reasonable and understandable.

HOWEVER, (1) it is important not to let conversations end there, and (2) by understanding where they’re coming from, you have not actually agreed with them or endorsed their positions.

For (1), when the other person feels like they’ve been fully understood, they are receptive to hearing what you say. When you have that opportunity, be completely honest about what you felt when they first said the position you disagreed with, and what values/needs you had that created that visceral reaction.

For (2), it’s important to understand that acknowledging and understanding people’s feelings is different from validating or agreeing with them, even though they are very very very close. If you’re doing NVC right, when you tap into the needs responsible for creating someone’s feelings, that need is going to be a very universal, very basic, very human one — the need for safety, connection, independence, happiness, respect, calm, friendship, appreciation, to be understood, etc. As such, it is hard to deny or not accept the need driving someone’s behavior once you realize what it is. At the core you agree/resonate with this person. But remember that the empathy must go both ways: you too have something universal and basic driving you, and it led you to the opposite conclusion. At no point does the other person have the upper hand or are right because they have something understandable driving them — the two of you are completely symmetric in this regard.

And at the end of the day, NVC requires stating the presence of (reflecting back) emotions and needs without judgment, and that is just always going to be different than endorsing or approving of someone’s feelings (after all, that requires a judgment). “You’re right,” “I don’t think you did anything wrong” etc. all involve making moral judgments, a no-no in NVC. So even if understanding someone’s feelings and endorsing them feel similar, NVC is ultimately not in the business of assuaging guilt or forgiving or approving or disapproving. It is more about being and educating and learning — telling people what the state of the world is, and letting them do with that information what they will.

Not all who preach empathy practice it

Another source of tension between empathy and justice is people who advocate empathy without practicing it themselves. I’ll give two examples that I’ve personally experienced multiple times since the election:

Example 1: Someone would call for people to be more empathetic to a group, Group X. Either at the same time or later in the conversation, the same person would call a different group, Group Y, liars, manipulative, and overreacting (in the three times this happened to me, all three words were used by the same person in the same conversation). These are all judgment words significantly lacking in empathy. In short, they preach empathy but do not apply it universally.

Example 2: Someone would stress the need for a group to be more accepting of disagreement. For example, in response to people saying “Politician so-and-so is a racist liar,” they’d say, “We should be more understanding and accepting of people who disagree.” Then, later in the conversation, they would reveal that they too agree with the position they are asking more acceptance for (“I disagree that politician so-and-so is racist, so I think we should stop claiming that they are”). In doing so, what they are asking for is more acceptance for a position they already agree with, and less acceptance for a position they don’t agree with. It doesn’t require empathy to accept a position you already agree with. Nor are they demonstrating empathy by trying to quash a position they disagree with. Empathy (at least in the high-stakes scenarios in which NVC might be tempting to use) requires going out of your comfort zone to understand the seemingly unreasonable. I very rarely see people who preach empathy practice this.

In short, the implication of these statements is “You should show empathy. However, I decline to show empathy.” In these contexts, the word “empathy” is used to mean something more like “capitulation” or “agreement.”1

In the face of the implication that empathy means capitulation or empathy only ever goes one way, I think it’s very tempting to dismiss empathy and say, “To hell with it.” However, I think we need to do the opposite: practice MORE empathy. Realize that the people who claim to defend empathy and advocate its use are not always the truest wardens or believers or practitioners of it. And that’s okay because the cause of justice itself provides a better reason to be empathetic.

The social aspects of justice and empathy

In my opinion, nonviolent communication hinges on the belief that people generally like to create happiness and enrich the lives of other people and be useful to other people, and they dislike causing other people pain. Regardless of how much someone disagrees with you politically, when you sit down to talk to them, they will (more likely than not) be warm, generous, very giving. Most people have good intentions and are trying their best. And yet there is so much pain and indifference and cruelty in the world! Why is this?

For one, a personal connection is critical to triggering this instinct in people. If there are whole swathes of human beings who you don’t know personally, never established a friendship with, etc. their pain only exists in theory. You know of or hear of their pain (and maybe not even that), but it is not there in front of you.

For another, there are many ways in which people can be made to be indifferent to others’ suffering. The main way is through stigma or dehumanization. Viewing people as disgusting, unpleasant, dirty, etc. makes people more indifferent to their pain. In my experience, people can be generally empathetic, but still have like a black hole of empathy for just a subset of people.

Segregation contributes to both lack of knowledge of people’s pain (due to lack of communication) and indifference toward it.

Key to the achievement of justice is countering these things: making people aware of the ways in which people go with basic needs unmet, and making it harder to be callous toward it. Nonviolent communication is ultimately about this: it is about expressing very clearly and directly how one’s needs were not met and how this affected you, as long as you have the courage to be vulnerable enough to bare your pain and dashed hopes in this way. In tying your pain to universal needs without judgment, you have a good shot at creating a human connection with the other person, which means they have a greater chance of understanding fully what is at stake.

This notion, that when people are forced to confront — truly and deeply — a moral issue, an issue of justice, they will eventually want to and choose to do what’s right, is key to nonviolent communication and to justice as a whole.

This is what it means to fight for justice and to hold people accountable. You confront people very vulnerably with the ways in which the system is not working, and you ask people to support change to make it right. This notion, that when people are forced to confront — truly and deeply — a moral issue, an issue of justice, they will eventually want to and choose to do what’s right, is key to nonviolent communication and to justice as a whole. For more on this view of the world, see this blog post on the philosophical position that human nature is good.

Who bears the burden of empathy?

One more issue with nonviolent communication is that it is time-consuming and requires active effort. People don’t naturally speak in the way nonviolent communication requires. And I will say, it is much more pleasant to rant about politics to someone who knows exactly what I mean, than it is to engage with someone indifferent to my pain or to the pain of people close to me. To be empathetic is a non-trivial amount of emotional labor. Who should bear the cost of such labor?

Like I mentioned in the previous section, part of fighting for justice is making people aware of injustice. It is an act of education or informing. As such, there is asymmetry in how the information has to flow: it has to flow from the people who know to the people who don’t. But I would like to point out two important things:

(1) It is much easier to raise awareness about something when you are not the one negatively affected. I personally think the people in the best position to practice this kind of empathy-for-justice are people who know personally people who are directly affected, but are not themselves directly affected. This gives them a good balance of deep understanding, deep investment, and time/ability to cope with language or opinions that are e.g. extremely dehumanizing. (This is why allies have an important role to play.)

(2) Nonviolent communication rests on a key assumption that you can never MAKE anyone do anything. You can order, guilt, shame, wheedle, suggest, plead, bully, beat, threaten, even kill, and certainly that might have the effect of changing most people’s behavior. But ultimately people can still choose to resist, refuse, and forever resent this use of coercion. You cannot make anyone practice empathy, and no one can make you practice empathy. It is something you freely choose to do only when you want to do it.

You can never make anyone do anything

So at the end of the day, who bears the burden of empathy? It’s you. Yes, you, the person who is reading this post. Empathy starts with you, and it can only be practiced by you. If you want to see more empathy in the world and can only control your actions, what is the implication of that? To those calling for people to be more empathetic, how does knowing this change how you make that call?

1 In the interest of also showing empathy, I think what is going on here is that people feel uncomfortable and unwelcome in a group where people strongly disagree with them on high-valence issues like racism, and I assume the reason behind that is that they value not being seen as racist (or bigoted) highly. As such, when they see disagreement on whether something is racist or not and they’re on the “not” side, they feel stressed because they don’t want to be seen as racist (there are many pathways through which defending a “that’s not racist” position increases one’s chance of being viewed as racist). (Knowing that they feel this way, they imagine there must be tons of others who also experience this. As such, they view the left as sabotaging itself when saying things about racism that other people are bound to disagree with and feel upset about. They are afraid of perpetually losing elections due to saying things that will set off people’s insecurity about whether or not they are right on racism.) While I’m not 100% sure (I certainly didn’t do my empathy homework when I had the chance), I do think stressful disagreement due to a need to be accepted and respected is at the center of the request for “more empathy.” What they are essentially asking and hoping for is “more empathy for me” or “more agreement with me” because that is what they want (not “empathy in general” or “empathy for that group over there” or “tolerance for disagreement in general”, even if that is what they say). It’s not that universal empathy and tolerance of disagreement wouldn’t also serve their goals and therefore be something they’d want to have, but that is not what they need or are asking for, nor is it what they are themselves performing.

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