Bias and Empathy

Everyone has inherent bias.

In any number of ways and on various topics, we have a preconceived and prejudiced view of the world. We can’t help it; our perceptions are shaped by our own experiences. We can no more gain experience by listening to someone else than we can gain height by standing next to an NBA player. We may be able to gain understanding, but we cannot feel or think any differently unless we process other perceptions through the lens of our own known experiences. This is called gaining empathy.

The dialogue I see every day concerning societal ills (specifically for this post, racism and sexism) is simply unhelpful. We have foregone compassion to pursue some kind of experiential competition, a jockeying of anecdotes, if you will. I have been told I know nothing of racism because I’m white, or that I must have internalized misogyny because I care about a man’s voice in an abortion debate. I’ve even seen the argument that I cannot speak with any authority on race because I’m blonde. It is largely accepted in our society that some experiences and opinions hold more weight simply because they fit a certain narrative.

I don’t have to be black to know what racism is, I have experienced it first hand, and quite forcefully. I have no “privilege” that protects me from hate, because hate is a spiritual ill. It isn’t choosy about who it infects. To be told that my experience is less valid or that my opinion less valuable based on my race is in itself racist. To be told that I must always side with a woman in a debate over sexism is perpetuating sexism. These narrow parameters we insist on are limiting not only our dialogue but also our understanding. We are propagating the very things we claim to want to abolish by telling others they aren’t qualified to speak because they don’t fit our idea of a victim.

There is no way for someone else to know our experiences, or how those experiences affect us. The only thing they can do is empathize by relating to us through an experience of their own. I have never lost a child. I imagine it is unbearably painful, and my empathy for those who’ve lost a child is based on my experience of knowing love as a mother and of losing a nephew. That loss devastated me, but I know my love and my loss was less than that of his own mother, because I know that my love for my own children is greater than anything else I’ve ever known, including my love for other family members. It’s simply different. I can, however, relate based on my own experience. I can empathize. I can understand a little better because my experience is a little closer. I cannot know, however.

Likewise, when someone speaks to me of prejudice and oppression, I can relate through my own experience. When they tell me that the vehicle by which I come to relate to them is invalid, unwanted, and disrespected, they are essentially saying they do not want my understanding; they want my complete submission to their thought control. They wish to implant ideas and feelings that are untethered in either experience or reality. They don’t want me to relate, they want me to substitute my thoughts for theirs. This does not lend itself to realizing empathy, but it is pretty successful as a bullying tactic.

We used to be taught the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, or “Treat others how you’d like to be treated.” This valuable lesson has been twisted and now people will say, “Treat others how they treat you.” You’ve been hated? Hate others. You’ve been oppressed? Oppress others. You’ve been objectified? Objectify others. This ideology is poison. There is no empathy or compassion to be found in it, only cruel one-upmanship and tyranny. This hardness of heart is what we perpetuate when we try to shut others up and devalue their experiences by which they can relate to and understand us. Empathy and understanding are fostered in the shared experience. When we begin to relate instead of compete, we can have constructive dialogue.

Of course, our anecdotes and experiences may still be askew of absolute truth, but they are valuable in establishing a healthy consideration for others via the Golden Rule. Facts (via FBI crime data/statistics) absolutely undermine the rhetoric of the Black Lives Matter movement, but facts do not do nearly as much damage as their expressed disdain for police officers and their disregard for other races in general. Even the most altruistic among them cannot overcome the divide that has been deepened by the inability to value opinions outside of their own. It is much the same with modern feminists. The rampant misandry within feminism today has poisoned all conversation concerning sexism. They do not want to foster understanding, but to obliterate and subvert all opposition to their particular worldview.

It’s important to realize that we all have our own biases. We can’t help how our experiences have shaped our perceptions, but we also cannot force other people to embrace our biases. We have to get over ourselves if we wish to connect, and we have to find shared ground in order to truly foster understanding. We have to return to a philosophy of empathy which says “I do not want this to be done to me, so I must not do this to you.”

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