At Questioning Transphobia, there’s a post called Empathy and Kyriarchy, that says this:
This is the failure I see over and over again: People identify with the oppressor. People often do not identify with the oppressed. I am not making distinctions here between marginalized and privileged people because this does not matter. Many trans people are quite transphobic, many women are sexist, many people with disabilities carry ableism. They identify more with the dominant culture that valorizes and emblemizes cisnormativity, manhood, and being temporarily able-bodied or neurotypical over transness, womanhood and femininity, or having a disability. No one is immune to this.
And that’s something I’ve been noticing, and trying to put into words, for years.
When I hear about, for instance, a disabled person who has been murdered, abused, and whatnot, I immediately identify with them. I also do this when I see people talking about some group of people in really offensive (but very allowed and approved by most people) ways. When I found out about Charles-Antoine Blais, I didn’t think “Oh how hard his mother must have had it,” I thought “OMG, how awful to have your mother who is supposed to love you and take care of you, push you underwater until you drown.” I can imagine it all too well. It’s not something I do on purpose. It’s a reflex. I just know that experience from that point of view, and I know there is nothing to justify what is done to the person in question.
I think I tried to write a post about this a long time ago. I don’t know if I ever finished it, and I don’t even know how to find it. But I’ve noticed that a lot of what divides me from a lot of people who purport to care about (insert kind of people here), is that I have that instant, instinctive, impossible-to-ignore identification thing going on. It makes me unable to read certain conversations at all because of the horribleness of not only whatever has been done to the person/people in question, but having to read page after page of other people identifying with the abuser/oppressor/murderer/whatever without often even realizing they’re doing it, since they do it just as instinctively as I do the opposite.
Sometimes I wonder if this is tied to another peculiarity of mine, which is the inability to perceive certain things that the rest of the world seems to perceive. I’m not talking about inability to perceive difference, which wouldn’t help anyone because people are different. But there’s a particular kind of perception I don’t have. It’s whatever perception enables people to, for instance, differentiate someone they see as “not there” or “not all there,” from a person who “is there”. Despite knowing people who look and respond to the world in very unusual ways (whether autistic, with dementia, or whatever else), I’ve never been able to figure out the quality of “this person isn’t really there” that other people see in them (or in myself a lot of the time). I know they perceive people this way, this is where we get terms like “vegetable” (which I consider something beyond offensive). But when I am around people who attract that label, I perceive people who are responding to the world around them in some really obvious ways. But other people don’t have that perception, they see them as oblivious to the world around them. And I can’t figure out why. I can often identify with the way such people respond to the world more easily than I identify with the average person who has a layer on top of their thinking that I don’t have, or barely have, or only have 1% of the time, or something like that. And it seems like it’s that layer that they consider “being really there,” and if a person either doesn’t have that layer, looks like they don’t have that layer, or cannot pass as having that layer even if they don’t, then the person might as well not exist, or barely exist, to them.
I know that can’t be the only reason I view things this way, but that’s got to be part of it. It’s much harder to ignore someone’s personhood when you are viscerally aware of their existence. I don’t know what makes me this way, but it seems to me that if more people were this way, even if more people tried to be this way, there would be a lot fewer problems in the world. And yet I’m said to be without empathy (or “impaired in empathy”), simply because I can’t always predict or understand nondisabled people’s actions.
But this really means a lot to me — viewing all people as people, not just some people. On a visceral, nearly-impossible-to-ignore level. I’m not saying I can’t hurt people. Everyone has the capacity to do harm to others for a large number of reasons, most often without even trying. I’m not even saying people don’t die in some manner because of me, because everyone lives off the lives and deaths of people they will likely never know or meet, in indirect ways. But there’s really something important in putting yourself in the shoes of the target of violence rather than jumping to excuse the perpetrator (I note there’s a definite line between excuse and understand, but too often “understand” becomes a euphemism for “excuse”). If the perpetrators did it in the first place, there would be way fewer perpetrators. It’s really important to know people are people and to empathize with people who are too often depersonalized in our societies rather than to solely empathize with the ones who are already considered a person.
Also a note that empathy should involve perceiving someone as they are, not perceiving someone through your own pity, prejudice, and other distorting factors. Perceiving someone through the standpoint of pity is how some of us get murdered to begin with, we’re seen as endlessly suffering and in need of release through death. That kind of false empathy isn’t what I’m talking about here.
Sorry if this post isn’t very coherent or repeats itself a lot or anything like that. It’s one of those posts that’s triggered directly from reading something else, and that I have very little control over the end form because it’s hard for me to read and write at the same time. Lately I seem to write whatever I write whenever I write it, and it ends up however I’ve written it rather than however I want it to look. There’s a definite point in here that I’ve considered important for a long time, I just hope it turns out comprehensible in the end.