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.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods. Crochet or otherwise create constantly and compulsively. Write poetry and paint when I can. Physically and cognitively disabled. Anything you hear in the media or gossip is likely to be oversimplified at best and wildly inaccurate at worst, the only way to get to know me is to actually know me. I'm not really part of any online faction or another, even ones that claim me as a member. The thing in the world most important to me is having love and compassion for other people, although I don't always measure up to my own standards there by a longshot. And individual specific actions and situations and contexts matter a lot more to me than broadly-spoken abstract words and ideas about a topic. My father died a couple years ago and that has changed my life a lot in ways that are still evolving, but I wear a lot of his clothes and hats every day since he died and have shown no sign of stopping soon.

46 responses »

  1. Thank you for this- I identify with it very strongly, and I think this is a large part of why I’m so drawn to much of your writing, at least now that I’ve found it. The whole attitude of automatically siding with the dominant culture is actually really disturbing to me, especially when it means siding with the powerful/dominant people over less privileged. It’s also nonsensical to me, as culture isn’t stable and in many ways the groups of people who are privileged and the way they are privileged has changed many times throughout history.

    I’ve also recently been running into some autistic people online who seem hellbent on trying to justify the status quo. If I say “If this is so harmful to people like me maybe we shouldn’t be doing it this way” they’ll come up with every excuse they can for why things need to stay that way (even if they don’t make sense), and then start saying things like “That’s just how things are.” And I’m well aware of how things are, but there’s not just one of those! And it’s really quite disheartening to be told this by someone who should be able to empathesize with me, but I guess to a large extent they’ve had that forced out them in favor of the dominant culture. These are relatively small things too, so it’s not even like I’m suggesting huge changes in the way people do things (though I think huge changes are eventually necessary too and there is the same sort of problem there).

    The way I see it, this is really a very central thing in general. It also puts me at odds with some people who use the same sorts of political labels that I do, in that they just have this capability to look at people that way even if they don’t use it as much as most people.

    “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’… 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.”

    Out of interest, do you feel this way about animals? I honestly do- I don’t see, for instance, why it’s automatically okay to kill ants or wasps or cockroaches without regard to the situation but not dogs or parakeets or humans. And this obviously can lead to some paradoxes that I haven’t worked out completely (one person asked me if I regretted washing my hands because that killed bacteria) but I still don’t view animals as “not there.” And the science would seem to actually seem to fit side with me. this says that insects do possess a conciousness although they’re more fuzzily aware of things on a sensory level.


    Most people don’t seem very open to this kind of thing and people act like I’m crazy if I say, want to deal with cockroaches without poisoning them (and it turns out there actually ARE other options to automatically killing every cockroach you see).

    I’m not trying to raise the importance of animals above people but if anything even in this mindset I treat animals worse than people and put less thought into their welfare, although not automatically resorting to mass poison has had people suggest that I was “being nicer to animals than people.”

  2. 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.

    For what it’s worth, I’m neurotypical, but I totally understand this. I too have that same innate reaction. I lost a friend over this recently, after I asked her to hide her blog posts about child abuse (reporting on the abuse of others, not her own history) behind a link, with a trigger warning. She told me that I have “a monkey on my back” and that she used to feel that way, but she’s stopped doing that now, and I need to get over it too. Needless to say, I don’t feel that it’s something I need to or should “get over”.

    I just can’t even wrap my head around that. Why would someone want to stop empathizing with other humans? Why is identifying with others something I would want to escape? Why is feeling the pain of others something bad? I agree with you wholeheartedly – if more of us felt the pain of others, there would be a lot less pain inflicted to begin with. Deep, innate empathy will help make the world a better place for everyone, but especially those most vulnerable.

  3. I recently got a copy of Obediance to Authority by Stanley Milgram, and the really interesting thing about his studies was how completely the majority of participants sided with the experimenter. One alteration was to have the *experimenter* be the one getting the shocks, while the confederate urged the participant on (it was supposedly to convince the confederate to participate). In that example, as soon as the experimenter indicated unwillingness to be shocked, they stopped.

    I wonder if your tendency to identify with the victim is related to a reduction in the ‘instinct to please authority’ that most people have.

  4. Yes, thank you. I didn’t delve into a lot of specifics but it is this kind of thing that inspired my post.

    I mean, two of the really stark, glaring examples that stood out for me were conversations about disability. Like the Katie Thorpe case where non-disabled feminists were arguing there is nothing wrong with forcing a hysterectomy on a woman with a disability to make things more convenient for her caretakers. The other was a young girl who (I believe) also had cerebral palsy and used a wheelchair, and whose mother had a “Do not revive” sign put on the back. And again, non-disabled feminists didn’t see the problem with this. No one seemed to care what the girl wanted.

    And in both of these cases, there was pushback on the basis that people needed more education to understand how PWDs are fully human and deserving of human compassion. And I do not believe education is necessary for compassion, but empathy is, and all too many people fail at it, and the need for education is one of the many excuses for it.

  5. This is very interesting – Temple Grandin refers to it in ther book, Thinking in Pictures. Her identification with someone is the foundation of her empathic response, and as an Autie I’m the same. neurotypicals seem to have empathy as a vague emotional response, unattached to specifics. When I feel for a person it’s a concrete distress at what it must be like to be experiencing what they’re going through. I don’t feel ‘sorry for people in Sudan’, I imagine what it’s like to have your family murdered, to be violently raped, your home burned down. That’s the foundation of my empathy. It’s been a bit of a shock to realise this is not ‘normal’ empathy.

  6. I have the same instant identification with people who get the worst treatment. Sometimes, it’s just this pervasive, all-encompassing feeling of shared suffering. For instance, I recently learned about a disabled great-aunt who spent much of her life in asylums and died of TB in a state mental hospital when she was only 25. I still haven’t been able to get the picture of her suffering out of my mind, and I doubt I ever will. I feel a very close bond with her, even though she died 25 years before I was born.

    I’ve also never looked at a person and thought “This person isn’t really there.” I’ve been around people whose modes of perception I didn’t understand, but I’ve never doubted that I was looking at a human being with a soul.

    I don’t really understand why other people don’t see things the same way. That apparently means that I lack empathy and theory of mind. Well, yeah, I guess I lack a theory about how people can live their lives without noticing that there’s a tear in the fabric of the universe when an injustice is done, but then again, they lack theory of mind about how I can live my life without desensitizing myself to suffering. It’s seems perfectly obvious to me that people understand those who are most like them, but if you’re “normal,” that kind of understanding is “normal”, and if you’re “abnormal,” that kind of understanding is “abnormal.” Another one of those injustices that makes me want to weep.

  7. Perhaps it is not a lack of perception on your part but on the majority in this case. You perceive existence where the oppressor and those who empathize with them presume there is none.

  8. Pancho: Yes I do feel that way about animals. Although I don’t take the route that some people do — I’m not vegetarian (anymore). But that’s largely because I know that part of how the world works is some animals are carnivores and omnivores, including us. Combined with health reasons.

    I also feel that way about plants. This is where some people laugh and say I’m taking it too far. But even though they lack brains, plants do what they can to stay alive. If you put a plant in the dark it will do everything it possibly can to find light (as I found out to my horror when asked to do this for a school project, I will never forget reaching into that closet and finding a pale white plant grown several times as long as the other in search of light).

    And that’s when people accuse me of anthropomorphizing. But as I see it, even the very notion that empathizing with someone requires anthropomorphizing shows a bias towards humanity. I don’t see other animals and plants as possessing the exact same set of traits that humans have (or any one animal or plant as having the exact same set of traits as any other). I just see them each possessing their own unique set of traits including a preference for being alive (even if that preference is encoded into something other than a brain and therefore manifests differently).

    I also don’t innately distinguish as much as many people do between animate and inanimate things. That really gets me accused of anthropomorphism but it’s more about respecting each thing as exactly what it is. I can identify with an inanimate object in a very physical sort of way rather than a “this is what it would think if it had a brain” sort of way (and this often happens involuntarily). But that becomes very hard to explain in English, and possibly in language in general. It’s definitely not about making a table into a pseudo-human though, and I get annoyed when people without this experience of the world try to make it into that or anything close to it. Some things just don’t translate well.

  9. RobinF: I definitely didn’t mean to say that it was about being neurotypical or not. Lots of neurologically atypical people, including lots of autistic people, are the same as usual in this regard. I’m sorry if I made it sound otherwise.

  10. Pancho: I forgot to respond to the part about washing your hands. I don’t really see a contradiction there. As I see it, any species does what it has to in order to survive and this is usually not a bad thing. That includes us. Often, in struggling for survival, some other species (and more rarely, some of the same species) dies. Sometimes we win. Sometimes the bacteria win. All life benefits from both the life and death of other life, and trying to get out of that situation seems to me to be more destructive than accepting this as it is. It doesn’t have to mean not empathizing with those who end up at any particular moment dying. It just means accepting that death will happen in order for life to happen no matter what species ends up living or dying at any given moment.

  11. I very much relate to having an instinctive, visceral empathy / identification with some individuals or situations. I had a really hard time expressing it to a Research Fellow who used me as a research subject for an autism study, that I identify with people who have so-called ‘classic’ autism and he said that was ludicrous and that I couldn’t possibly identify with people ‘like that’ and that they were barely even people!

    (and don’t even get me started on the ‘classic/low functioning v. high functioning’ argument people make – it’s just another form of segragation and I think that it is simply not something you can define in a linear way – nor is it helpful to label people according to their perceived functioning – why can’t we just get the support and access we need without all this labelling and assessment and judgement nonsense?)

    As an abuse survivor, I often instinctively identify with other abuse survivors too, but again get told but ignorant people that I can’t possibly understand x type of abuse when I’ve only experienced y abuse, or that because I’m disabled (and sometimes they are implying that I sort of ‘deserved’ the abuse, therefore…) my experiences and opinions don’t matter. etc.

    I don’t even understand how someone can think that a person is more or less deserving of empathy if they are from x group (gender, sexuality, disability, race, red hair, whatever) or that their abuser / attacker had mitigating circumstances when presented with one of THOSE people.

    One thing that utterly perplexes (and frightens me!) is when people supposedly from the same ‘group’ attack each other. e.g. the autie/aspie supremacists wanting nothing to do with people on the spectrum who do not share their ideals, or who have different support needs, or (as I experienced more recently) someone with a physical disability discriminating against people with neurodevelopmental disabilities as apparently we are not ‘proper’ disabled people and just weirdos who need to either learn to ‘behave properly’ or be locked up. Yeah, thanks for that! Interestingly you also get this in terms of disability legislation and procedures, where provision is often made for, say, level access, but if you raise the issue of access adjustments for people with non-physical needs (e.g. being able to have a quiet area for people who can’t cope with sensory bombardment of being in noisy waiting area, or ways to contact an organisaiton via AAC) then no-one is sympathetic/empathetic and act like you’re being unreasonable and spoilt and refuse to help you.

    Finally (sorry, have cluttering so ramble a lot) I identify a lot with inanimate objects too. I don’t know if it is anthropomorphism or not in my case, but I just seem to see things in certain ‘objects’ that I instinctively connect with and that affects how I treat them. It’s hard to explain and generally gets pathologised by every medical professional I know and leads non-medical people to classify me as ‘stupid’ or ‘crazy’ and I’ve even lost friends because of it.

    Final note on empathy – why is it that people think we supposedly lack empathy? I find that the main difference (and this is only in my limited experience) is the way that some people on the spectrum manifest their empathy. I certainly don’t have any compulsion to hug anyone or say “there, there”. I don’t understand it and can’t physically do it. When I empathise I tend to do practical things to try to help the person, but apparently this is not okay and doesn’t count. I know others who have similar difficulties and it is so hard to not only be told you can’t empathise when you actually can, but for your attempts to show your empathy to be discounted as annoying or inconsiderate or irrational behaviour.

  12. I have a huge difficulty in empathizing with anyone. When I try to imagine how a person feels or thinks, it often ends up as egocentrism because I think about what I would be doing instead.

    I’ve also spent more time interacting with people online than in real life, and there is a very prevalent sense of social Darwinism on the Internet. Instead of correcting people’s ignorant comments, kids usually just call them gay, perverted or…well…unworthy of life, and the ignorant person responds in kind, creating more of the problem. It’s only been a few years since I realized this is not the way humans typically operate at all.

    On many occasions I myself have stupidly dismissed people as useless because of their clothes, attitude, or voice. It would be nice to care about living things the way you can.

  13. Amanda, the difference with humans is we have the ability to make and carry out choices about how other creatures live and die, and we can bring wider implications into the equation. For example as an ethical vegan I know insects die for my diet, Ive tried to grow my own veg and it doesn’t work unless you use at least “organic” slug pellets. But by not using farmed animals as part of my survival regime I reduce my impact in a number of ways, for example the carbon footprint of the transportation of animal feed.
    I would love to be able to live without killing, but since I can’t I still can choose to minimise the damage.

  14. When I feel for a person it’s a concrete distress at what it must be like to be experiencing what they’re going through. I don’t feel ’sorry for people in Sudan’, I imagine what it’s like to have your family murdered, to be violently raped, your home burned down. That’s the foundation of my empathy. It’s been a bit of a shock to realise this is not ‘normal’ empathy.

    I actually do this too. I often feel particularly vulnerable to other people’s distress on a personal level. I don’t know if it’s specifically a neurodiversity thing, but it makes for a really frustrating disconnect when talking to some people about, say, the scale of death and destruction in Afghanistan and Iraq.

  15. There is a widespread attitude in people who are financially secure to identify with those in the same situation as themselves, and to condemn and despise people who are unemployed or dependent on welfare payments and/or support.

  16. Ther1, all empathy is egocentric because we cannot know what it is like for someone else. As a student nurse (who didn’t complete the course) I was taught that we should take people’s evaluations of their own pain seriously, because what looks minor from the outside may feel more severe, and everyone is unique. When we think we feel someone else’s pain in fact we interpret and fantasise what it *might* be like if that was us. We overfocus on some bits, maybe the bits we understand, and underfocus or ignore altogether other bits of their experience.
    There’s also some difference between this kind of empathising and compassion, and then as mentioned by others where compassion tips over to pity and becomes unhelpful.

    How we respond outwardly to another’s pain depends on what we’ve learnt, for example I keep a small number of livestock animals, and my response to an animal that is limping is to work out what I should do, recall the process – check their feet, trim their hooves, look for abrasions or lumps – rather than to get very upset. But with my pets, after a superficial check the vet is the first call, and for a human the doctor is a priority.
    It’s not aso much about whether or not I have empathy as what I have learned is the best response. Imagining their pain is not the best response and doing something is the priority. It does them no good at all for me to sit back and imagine what it might be like to be them, I have to work out what to do, and that is far more useful. It’s probably also connected with empathy and compassion, but that is not at the fore of “being the change you wish to see in the world”.

  17. I don’t think mirroring pain is exclusive from empathy and compassion, either. I mean, it’s not something I do voluntarily, like I can’t just shut it off? And I think the ability to at least imagine yourself in someone else’s position is a pretty big step up from the standard (which is to act as if they should behave as if they are in your position).

    But like, for me, it’s not “sit back and imagine,” but an immediate visceral reaction.

  18. @ballasexistienz: No apology is necessary – I only mentioned that I was neurotypical as a way to negate an idea that some people may have (which would be that you feel this way because your autism gives you a different perspective). It is definitely, as you said, something not unique to or that goes along with autism; there are autistic people who don’t have a similar sense of empathy, and neurotypical people who do. So to anyone who wishes to dismiss this kind of deep empathy as some sort of autistic side-effect – no, it’s not. And, like you, I wish a lot more people felt this way.

  19. i remember when i first started reading you, and started to get an idea of what i was missing in terms of there being so many kinds of brainstyles and intelligences (way beyond those 7 or 8 they try to teach us) and just ways of interacting with the reality. i found that what i needed to accept all the new ideas, was not intelligence, but imagination, like in that old quote from Einstein(?).

    and many people who have what passes for an intelligence in college (demonstrated because they are students who earn high grades in my class by remembering a lot of details about the subject, or they are my colleagues because they have at least an MA degree), do NOT use an imagination that would help them realize that other people who they see as totally unlike them are also people on the same level as they are. they hopefully HAVE this imagination, but they aren’t using it.

    i suppose they have it because i must have had it back when i wasn’t using it. you didn’t give me imagination, you woke it up by presenting me with ideas that i had to confront somehow.

    apparently now, in some psych writings, imagination is being linked with empathy, but i didn’t look this up yet, i just heard it from a psych person. i should look it up.

  20. I have the exact same reaction. I remember this particularly when hearing about people in the UK who spent long periods in prison because the police fabricated evidence and pressured them into confessing to things (i.e. murders) they had not done, and these were usually mentally impaired people. I remember two separate discussions I had with my mother about this; when I was younger, my mother referred to the Guildford Four (four people – three men and one woman – who spent many years in prison for an IRA bombing when they were in fact nothing to do with the IRA and an IRA cell claimed responsibility after being convicted for other incidents) and said that they were imprisoned because “the police fabricated evidence”. Years later, she told me I shouldn’t use phrases like “fitted up” when this, in fact, is exactly what happened.

    To me, these things happened because police officers did the easy thing for themselves and got promotion (and money) in return, rather than the right thing to spare innocent people an awful lot of suffering. There simply is no justification.

    I also remember seeing programmes on British TV about abuse of child ME patients in the British health system in the 1980s and 1990s (although the abuse carried on after that, with child and adult victims, at least one of whom later died). One of those involved was a boy who had been taken away from his family because doctors decided his illness was psychological, and set about “shaking him out” of his paralysed state by such means as throwing him into a swimming pool and catapulting him out of a wheelchair. By that time, I had been in a “special” boarding school for some time and being thrown around rooms by grown men was something I had a lot of experience of, but this is how I would have reacted even before that. Doubtless some will make excuses for those responsible, much as with the crooked policemen, but to me it’s a simple case of them seeing an obviously sick child, imagining that they are not sick and abusing them for pretending to be sick.

  21. @Ballastexistenz I can understand what you mean when you say that animals survive based on the life and death of other animals and that sometimes other living things must die in order for us to survive. The thing that makes me uncomfortable is that this line of reasoning is often used as a justification for our mistreatment. People feel that we need to suffer or die in order to allow them to have a decent quality of life because somehow we are not compatible with civilization.

    I’m not saying you’re wrong, but it still makes me uncomfortable.

  22. TUL: Yeah I definitely don’t think that idea should be used to justify bad things happening to humans, nor the way humans mistreat other animals (including the animals some of us eat), or plants (which even many people who care about other animals don’t seem to realize have the same drive for life that is built into every living being, even if they experience it in an incredibly foreign way that doesn’t require a brain — I’ve always noticed that a lot of people who care about animals care less and less for the ones more and more different from humans and definitely don’t generally cross over to non-animal life forms) for that matter. It’s just an acknowledgment that we are not separated from the way the rest of the world functions even though a lot of us think that humans are special and different. Such a viewpoint acknowledges that everyone alive lives off of death no matter what they do or say, but it shouldn’t be used to justify people’s suffering and death. I find such justifications to be more than anything a misunderstanding of the whole point of recognizing this. But it also gets into the difference between using certain words to articulate an observation about the world and using certain words to build a giant structure of interconnected ideas. I’m always doing the first, the second is bound to become divorced from reality fast.

  23. @Ballastexistenz: I agree. Part of what I have noticed is that people tend to justify their treatment of other living things based on whether or not that entity is able to feel “pain” or has “consciousness.” Something like an insect, they reason, can’t feel “pain” so it’s okay to kill and torture them without feeling remorse.

    The thing is that these creatures can feel pain and they can become upset or distressed. I keep certain insects and arachnids as pets and I have seen them respond to painful stimuli and I have seen them express distress regarding the way they are being housed. The fact is that they do experience these things even if they don’t experience it in the way that we are used to nor do they communicate this distress in a language that we can easily understand.

    I remember having this idea laid out to me rather plainly by a special education teacher who was trying to get me to behave typically: She used to be abusive and when I would complain about being hurt, especially if I complained about being hurt emotionally, she would tell me that I was lying because people like me can’t understand pain and that what she was doing couldn’t possibly be hurting me. To her, I was just trying to manipulate her so I could act freakish.

    … It sounds a lot like people who say that insecticides don’t hurt insects because the writhing is only due to “their neurons firing out-of-control.”


  24. Gah! Now that I’m talking about spider keeping I feel like I have to rant about the subject of not having empathy for “lower” animals.

    One of the most distressing arguments I’ve been in is with people in the spider keeping community who think it’s cool to feed mice to larger tarantulas. The fact of the matter is that tarantulas don’t normally eat mammalian prey, although a larger spider will kill a small rodent if its hungry enough.

    This means that while a tarantula can kill something like a roach or a cricket in a second or two it can take them several MINUTES to kill a rodent. On top of this, the venoms of most spiders contain proteins for self defense, not hunting, that are specifically meant to cause pain to vertebrate animals! Any keeper careless enough to let themselves get bitten knows how well these proteins work (very well).

    I’ve watched video of animals take minutes to die by painful suffocation because, basically, their keepers thought it would be fun to watch it happen.

    There’s absolutely no justification for it. We keepers have known for close to a decade that tarantulas do not need vertebrate prey to remain healthy (it used to be believed that they did) and that, in fact, consumption of vertebrate pray can cause a serious and lethal molting disease!

    But you know what? They’re “just” mice so apparently it’s okay.

    End rant, I had to get that out of my system. Sorry if it’s a bit off topic.

  25. Wow. The insecticides hurt insects the same way an overdose of neuroleptics hurts humans (same chemicals). The writhing is neurological but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. It hurts humans when we have similar reactions.

  26. @Ballastexistenz I think we need to be very, very careful about concluding that the chemicals do anything remotely similar in their nervous systems as it does in ours. Invertebrate neurology is dramatically different from our own with different anatomy, different receptors, different everything.

    This leads to a lot of people claiming that there isn’t any proof that invertebrates feel pain and therefore they don’t understand pain.

    But that’s just the point, isn’t it? People being unable to sympathize with experiences that they do not understand.

    … also there’s the whole question of privilege. In other words, the privileged (us) require the underprivileged (the invertebrates) to prove to the privileged that their experiences are valid.

  27. @ ballastexistenz & The Untoward Lady

    I 100% agree. I think the idea is that every creature has to take life to live and I need to aknowledge + respect that, but at the same time be as caring (?) towards all things in the world as possible. Because if we want to have a “good” world we have to put our effort towards making it so.

    I dont think that it’s right to cause suffering to an insect or plant, but I do think we have more responsibility to be respectful of those creatures we know have a conciousness. Especially those who I would call “people” without being “human” like apes, dolphins, rats, cats, etc. It’s like there’s the rights of concious “selfhood” but also the rights of “life” and “existence”. And Rights might be a bad word, because the world doesn’t work that way, but it’s the best I can think of. Maybe “responsibility toward”…?

  28. My garage recently got colonized by an extended family of cockroaches, so this discussion is somewhat timely. I definitely don’t want them getting into the house (seeing as they multiply very rapidly, and could make all the food in my cupboards unfit for human consumption, and leave their droppings everywhere, etc.) so I’ve put roach traps and borax down in the garage.

    I know the roaches will feel pain as a result of this and it doesn’t make me feel “good” to do it. But I don’t really see what the alternative is.

    If there were some way to coax the roaches into going into the back yard and staying there I would be very happy to use it but I don’t know of any technique like that. And while yes I suppose I could just leave them alone and let them swarm my house, my own survival instinct won’t let me do that.

    I think there’s a difference between self-protection and killing for “fun”, or just because you can. I have no desire to kill cockroaches and I don’t bother them when they’re outdoors…killing them is just a side effect of engaging the only methods I know to not have them get all over my house. :/ But acknowledging that doesn’t mean I think killing is “okay” or “acceptable when it’s insects because they’re not self-aware like we humans are” in any general sense. And I think (as Amanda and others have stated in various ways) that there’s a massive difference between pointing out the inevitabilities of ecosystem life and using those inevitabilities to justify harm that could otherwise be avoided.

  29. @ Cereus:

    I have heard similar things to the consciousness idea before. I haven’t figured out how much I agree yet. The part where my instincts urge caution is more like two parts. One is that even if there is a dividing line there, humans can be quite obtuse about figuring out where that line is. Generally for our estimates of any given species, our estimate of their minds is overly low as we find out later. Even microbes have been shown to have actual behavior that is more than just the randomness normally attributed to them. Certain birds have “intelligence” (as certain humans quantify it, anyway — a very heavily biased perspective) as close to our own as chimps are, and many people didn’t notice for ages because they aren’t mammals and lack brain structures we normally associate with such things. (I don’t like saying we though. I mean the dominant cultural ideas, and am echoing their language without being able to find other ways to say it.)

    The second thing is related. What some humans call consciousness and put such a high value on, seems to me to be a way of saying, “the ones we think are most like ourselves”. I am not comfortable assuming that a particular pattern of brain, or a brain at all, has a higher desire (badly translated word from a sense I have no word for) to live and not be treated badly than a different brain or lack of brain. I will never know for certain what form that desire for life takes, I just can’t bring myself to believe it’s “obviously” not there or even lesser than the form a desire for life takes in a creature with a brain. (Please nobody quote me that old plant study though, they’ve found out what caused the readings and it wasn’t coming from the plant. But that doesn’t mean plants don’t have their own very real ways of wanting life and not liking to suffer that human laboratory experiments have no way of measuring. And honestly I am not entirely comfortable settling these questions in laboratories anyway. I just thought the longer this discussion goes the more likely someone will bring it up.)

    Anyway I see where the point would seem to be in that idea of consciousness making a difference — the idea of what causes more or less suffering — but I see too many problems for me to accept that we have even half a clue on that matter. It all comes back to humancentric (which extends into mammalcentric, etc.) thinking. I can’t shake the feeling that we aren’t the center of the experiences of all life in the world or anything close and that ideas of who is and isn’t conscious put ourselves and those like us at the center.

    Not that there’s no call for putting ourselves at the center in some other ways. It’s good for us to try to survive, and that demands that we sacrifice other lives just as we are sacrificed for the survival of others. But like you say, best to do it with caring, however any of us try to grapple with what that means. Which leads me to…


    That reminds me of my current situation. I have a bacterial infection in my lungs right now. (I aspirated vomit — because of uncontrollable coughing and the involuntary inhale that requires, the timing was all wrong and stuff went down the wrong way.) I am aware these bacteria quite want to survive and if there were a way such as some scientists have thought, to simply confuse them into not messing with my health, I would prefer it. But given that this doesn’t exist, I’d far rather take antibiotics than die.

    This is also the longest thing I’ve written since it happened, probably, and I’m rapidly running out of language. But hopefully I am making sense. I don’t mean to totally discount the idea I first referred to. I just have reservations. When all is said and done we live in a world too complex to make ideas for everything (and I am never more reminded of this than when my brief forays into idea-land send me crashing down to earth again, which will happen to me in a few minutes) and eventually just have to muddle through with a conscience and our instincts and observations and hope the rest of the world does the same (adapted to physiology and just plain physics, rest of the world in the broadest possible terms) and that it all works out somehow. Man am I tired.

  30. @ ballastexistenz

    I think that we may actually be agreeing with each other. I agree with what you just said. I’m trying to say that sometimes people draw the circle of “has feelings and/or ‘consciousness'” too narrowly based on who has opposable thumbs, walks upright, and has body language that’s comprehensible to them.

  31. The route the comments took here is interesting since when I mentioned this I saw it as more of a tangential thing, albeit one that was still related. I feel some degree of camaraderie with the cockroach, as people often react similarly to us, we are both thigmotropic (liking to have weight/pressure on us on all sides), and so forth. It’s easy for me to say “Cockroaches and I are being treated in a lot of the same ways and have things in common,” and since I don’t see cockroaches as inferior this doesn’t seem demeaning to me, whereas some other people would find comparisons to animals demeaning.

    “Pancho: Yes I do feel that way about animals. Although I don’t take the route that some people do — I’m not vegetarian (anymore). But that’s largely because I know that part of how the world works is some…”

    Overall that makes sense. You are probably right that there is not a real contradiction, insofar as we are all just trying to stay alive (including plants, I lost some points on my grades in high school for not being willing to kill plants). I have never really RESENTED cockroaches or bacteria or whatever, and probably wouldn’t even if my life was threatened. I think it’s pretty strange that you get accused of anthropomorphizing in this situation, though, since it’s other people who say things like “Cockroaches have invaded my home” or “Winning the battle against infection” and so forth, which is clearly presenting these things in the terms of how mainstream humans operate within the present culture. I’d say you’re one of the few people who AREN’T anthropomorphizing. I’m not really either, although I do sometimes confuse and occasionally alarm people by referring to animals as “people,” eg “I do not want you to hurt this person (spider)” or “There is a dead person by the side of the road” (opossum).

    I can’t relate so much to the part about inanimate objects, but I don’t find it that strange either. I’ve heard people from various native groups talk about “respect for the earth” in a way I wouldn’t necessarily think about it. I also know that musicians, for instance, often do not like to think of an instrument being mistreated or want to find a “home” for an instrument where it will be used rather than sitting in a closet. I’m not saying these are what you’re talking about, but I don’t think they’re any stranger than what you’re doing and people mostly accept them.

    And then since I left my last comment I re-stumbled across an older article of yours, “Dealing with Cats, Part 1: What is respect?” where, among other things, you talked about some this sort of thing, like that rocks can communicate in the sense of conveying information.

    I personally AM a vegetarian, but in addition to reducing animal/plant death I also find it cheaper, easier, more convenient, more pleasant, healthier, etc, and I would not forgo meat if this were not the case, so that fits in with what you’re saying too. And of course this does not mean that my diet does not cause the death of various plants, animals, fungi, etc, not even getting into the impacts my non-dietary lifestyle has in general, so you are right that the goal of “escaping” that can’t be that useful or healthy. I do think the western high meat diet is pretty unnecessary and ineffective and that drastically reducing meat intake would have all kinds of benefits, but that’s a different issue from this really.
    “My garage recently got colonized by an extended family of cockroaches, so this discussion is somewhat timely. I definitely don’t want them getting into the house (seeing as they multiply very rapidly, and could make all the food in my cupboards unfit for human consumption, and leave their droppings everywhere, etc.) so I’ve put roach traps and borax down in the garage. …”

    There are probably still more options than poison, and then even within poison some are probably more unpleasant than others. I am, for the first time, living in an apartment alone (this is causing all sorts of problems for me, but my overall health/life does not seem to be seriously at risk so I continue), and it turns out they were kind enough to give me an apartment room that came with a sizeable cockroach population. Obviously this is different from your situation, in that I have to accept that any given time I will be sharing the overall building with a good number of cockroaches even if I get them out of my room. However, what I eventually settled on was a combination of “gentrol” (that prevents them from reproducing but doesn’t harm the adults in any significant way) and home built cockroach traps that I could use to relocate them. Then I realized that I didn’t have any money so I couldn’t buy gentrol, and that the apartment owners periodically sent a mandatory poison spraying person that I wasn’t allowed to refuse anyway. I also realized that I’m not capable of constructing the cockroach traps, so I chase them around with a piece of tupperware and relocate them outside if I can catch them, only now I’m starting to worry “What if they’re already poisoned and I am just spreading that poison around outside so this is all backfiring?” Humans are unsanitary.
    So basically I have no idea what you could have done either. As a preventative measure, you could put gentrol in your garage and maybe other places in your house so a colony doesn’t build up again, but then a garage is kind of half outside so I don’t know if that would be okay. They do have those “feeding trays” like the poison, only with gentrol instead of poison. Trying to do that when there’s already a colony probably wouldn’t have worked, though.

    And back to the discussion of humans, I have seen two examples that reminded me of the linked article (and the first might be triggering to people who have specific ptsd reactions related to sexual abuse or assault). One was a discussion I read but did not participate in that basically started out as someone worrying that his girlfriend had cheated on him. It then came out that what she had actually claimed was that she was raped, but the people in the discussion were basically actively looking for ways to discount her, looking for “holes in her story” etc, including that she didn’t want to tell him at first. And I’m thinking there’s no way I would be capable of giving a clear story in her situation and that I would definitely be afraid to talk about it and that, overall, a few hours after someone has had an extremely traumatic experience is not the time to start applying pressure to get them to behave the way you want. However, the overall reaction of the people in the discussion was that the person’s girlfriend had betrayed him in some way by getting taken advantage of and that the other person’s actions were her fault due to the fact that she hadn’t had perfect judgment about what was and wasn’t safe. To tell the truth, I hadn’t really seen large numbers of people behave like that before. I’ve heard feminists complain of things like this and I took them seriously, but a lot of the typical “male behavior” they mention were things that I didn’t or don’t observe directly, perhaps due to being socially isolated and having had unusual friends when I did have friends. Observing things first hand is different than reading about them, no matter how much you already believed them to be happening.

    Another, smaller example was a discussion that I recently WAS taking part in, where a disabled person accused me of all the sorts of things that disabled people tend to get accused of, but then said that unlike this person I did not have a “real” disability. (I was also accused of misrepresenting myself, being a narcissist, and all those sorts of things that would make me question myself if they didn’t get thrown at so many autistic people they obviously don’t apply to.) After thinking about it, I had to see as an attempt to shift bigotry away from the marginalized group of “us” onto the marginalized group of “them” as a method of self protection. In my view, it’s not at all unlike “Aspie Elitism” in this regard. At the time I was pretty conciliatory towards the person out of fear of upsetting them, but in hindsight I may have paved the way for the next person who gets brushed aside in that manner. Sometimes I wish I WERE the only person being treated this way, even if it would mean being much more isolated and confused.

  32. This post was very important to me.
    It also describe the way I feel in the world and why it is so painful to me and makes me so angry when people say that autistics “lack empathy”.
    I don’t exactly know how to write it, but… in my memory I have always tended to feel especially something for the oppressed people and the victims, and feeled like if the world around me didn’t seem to feel as strong for them…
    I mean… what I dislike when people use the word “empathy” as if it meaned the same for “everyone” is that I have the feeling that there are so many biases in the way the majority of people have empathy or compassion.
    It’s not completely the same, but it remind me of the way I feel when watching many adventures movies.
    The way it is expected of the watcher to feel strongly for the hero and not for the extra’s characters…
    That’s disturbing to me, apparently the general audience seems to consider the characters that appear a lot as almost existing… and in a way play to believe in their existence, but the characters that you see just once don’t exists, don’t have feeling and so on.
    When I first saw “Raiders of the lost arc” I was almost horrified: “This character KILL a lot of people and don’t seem to care at all, I mean, even if these people attack him first, he could at least show more sadness for what happen, I mean even if they are nazis and being that represent exactly the kind of way of seeing the world, that digust and horrify me, they are still people, with feelings, perception and maybe some loved ones waiting them home.
    And maybe even more disturbing, when it’s about a character that is not a villain…
    For example, it seems that in Star Wars Episode VI no one seems to really care about what happens to the dancer when she fall on the trap, except to be affraid of what is going on, but they care more about what happens to the hero.
    And for another Star Wars example, when in Episode III many jedis we were used to see, it seems to affect the audience, but I’ve not seen many people think again to all the people (that we never saw) who died in the planet that explode! (I mean the ENTIRE POPULATION of a planet disappear and the audience doesn’t seems very affected by this idea… leïa screams when it happens, but people don’t mention this in the next episode (to what I remember)
    And I didn’t even mention the old westerns where so many native people were hapilly killed by the heroes… I don’t even watch them at all!
    I don’t know if what I said about Cinema is relevant here, but I feell there is a similar pattern, in the way the audience is only affected by what happen to the main characters (and usually typicals) and not toi the other, and the way the empathy of the majority go only to the people privileged in some way.
    Don’t know what to add.

  33. @AnneC: Regarding your roach problem maybe I can help. Perhaps you could loosely identify the roach species down at least to the genus level. This might help: http://entnemdept.ifas.ufl.edu/choate/blattaria_new.pdf

    Anyway, more often than not roach species that enjoy living in garages are not usually home invaders in that the inside of the home is rarely a good habitat for them. They just like the warm, damp environment so it’s important to identify whether or not they will invade your household.

    For example, the species of cockroach which I have domesticated, Blaptica dubia is virtually incapable of climbing slick surfaces like cabinets and painted walls and thus tend to not invade households. (there’s a reason why I chose this species to domesticate)

    A common roach that we often encounter in our garage are Blatta orientalis which can invade the house proper but normally don’t unless the inside is very filthy and food is stored particularly poorly. (my experience) They tend to just like the garage or occasionally they enjoy hanging out underneath sinks if you have allowed underneath the sink to become damp or humid.

    Look out for Blattella germanica and Periplaneta americana unless you like having your cupboards infested, though.

    Totally off topic but I suppose tangentially relevant when it comes to being humane to our six-legged neighbors. <3

    Oh, another thing that’s important when you want to avoid unnecessarily killing little guys: when you find a spider inside your home and want to remove it without killing it, do not move it outdoors. Remember that the spider has probably moved indoors to protect itself from the climate outside and moving it outdoors will likely end its life anyway. Move it into your garage or a shed or at the very least some place that is very sheltered and warm.

  34. “Not there”…for ME!!! “They aren’t paying attention TO ME!!” AND, “I suffer when I look at them, so therefore, they are suffering. Make them stop suffering in MY eyes.”

    I’m being cynical, but I don’t think the truth is far from that.

    “It’s only with the heart that one see’s rightly, what is essential, is invisible to the eye.”
    (http://hardwonwisdom.blogspot.com/2006/06/chapter-21-little-prince.html)Sorry for the plug…

    Maybe you see with your heart, and not a prejudiced mind.

  35. At our first college we had a plant we named Metis(also the name of the goddess Athena’s mother in Greek mythology…..) it was a bromeliad or some kind of orchid…..we loved that plant but often forgot to water it. 7 and a half years later we still think of that poor plant….

    Ah Metis………that fiery bloom…….
    Sometimes passive empathy isn’t enough……action is required….in the case of the plant……..without water, all the love in the world isn’t enough.
    I’m not implying that anyone is passive. Just stating a fact that relates to my little story here.

  36. I’m hfa and I see people’s ‘crazyness’, the amount they’re failing to connect with the world, instead being concerned with their fears. I think you’re talking about the same thing. It never occurred to me that this may be the inverse of what people (presumably crazy people by my definition) considered ‘being all there’, perhaps because they talk more openly in front of you.

    Sane people are the only ones who can stand me, coincidentally. Crazy ones I can feel their lies burning near me. They get very hostile because they believe those lies are part of themselves, not just a protective outer coating.

  37. Pingback: Some things I learned on Autistics Speaking Day | Kitaiska Sandwich

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