Empathy, a humane ability to recognize thoughts and feelings within another conscious being, is beneficial to all parties in most social contexts. However, ideal empathy only occurs when the empathizer is able to fully inherit all the feelings and experiences of others while in real life, this is hard to be achieved. Various factors such as unfamiliarity with others, deficiency of information and difference of referents will unconsciously lead to people’s failure of identification with another’s emotional state. Such kind of empathy’s drawbacks, though sometimes wisely guides people to make moral choices, deserves people’s attention to perform empathy appropriately. In my introduction to blog series, I am going to shed light on empathy’s limitations from real life to virtual world, and explain how they come into effect.
Generally speaking, empathy’s limitation lies mostly in its dependence on empathizer’s referents. Since empathizer can never directly know what the object is thinking about, he only infers the object’s inner state. And to achieve this, Dan H. Buie contends that “The empathizer finds a referent within his own mind, a referent that could, if expressed, reasonably be manifested by cues similar to those he observed in object”. According to the post “Changes and continuities in Atticus’s characters”, this limitation is most notably illustrated through Jean Louise’s transition from failing to empathize with Atticus, to being softened at the end of the novel(GSAW). Then what on earth causes this transition? And what is the reason behind the complete change of her attitude? According to the post, when Jean was young, Atticus defends Tom Robinson by declaring, “In courts, all we are legally equal.”(TKMB) Although Tom Robinson was finally died of racial discrimination, Atticus’s spirit of searching for justice and equality, in the eye of little Jean Louis, was admirable and irreplaceable. At the same time, the heroic figure of Atticus is built in Jean’s heart, which also constituted the referent she held then. However, her lack of empathy towards Atticus happens when she found that she could no more find similar referent to empathize with him. The idolized figure to fight against racists is now replaced by the one who attends Citizen’s Council and opposes the efforts of NAACP, while the referent, as what she believed Atticus should be, still remains. Then why she softened at the end of the novel? According to the post, during her time in Maycomb, she gradually realized that the admirable roles in her heart, Uncle Jack and Atticus, are revealed to be not the perfect ones as she expected them to be. Atticus does share some thoughts of a racist. Jack is not as mild as she thought who hit her almost to pass out. Along with her realization, her referent of Atticus unconsciously changes from a sparkling figure built from childhood to a flawed human seen from an adult’s perspective. If we take all these discussed above to think about Jean’s transition, it is not hard to understand the reason why Jean changes from being angry to feeling softened.
Apart from empathizer’s inference based on referents, people also fails to empathize because of the in-group preference of empathy. In literary works, such kind of preference is easily to be ignored when scholars try to find approaches to empathizing with devils. Adam Morton, who contends that overcoming the barriers of morality will help people empathize with devils, further to better empathize with ordinary issues, is one of them. According to the post “What attitude should we hold towards empathy for atrocities?”, he describes this morality-limited empathy as “we want to take empathy as easy, to ease everyday interaction, and we want to take it as difficult, to keep a distance between us and those we despise.” And “a deeper understanding, and a more solid empathy, for some very ordinary actions” will be achieved if we are able to empathize with atrocities. However, to empathize with evil-doers is not as simple as his reasoning seems to be. Just as Fuchsman, Ken indicated, “Empathy is most likely to emerge with those with whom we are familiar, those that are an ‘us’”. This means that people tend to empathize with those who are in the “same” group. To satisfy this requirement, the pre-condition to empathize with devils requires the empathizer to be in the same group as the object, which in this case, is to be a group member of “devil communities”. To conclude, people’s morality, though leads to people’s failure of empathy, prevents them from becoming evil-doers and helps them empathize with “similar” moral people. Even if the limitation performs a good role to benefit social justice here, it still deserves our concern when in multicultural social contexts, people might be affected by empathy’s in-group limitation through decision-making, leading to partial and biased choices.
In online community, however, based on its anonymous nature, such kind of in-group limitation may exaggerate people’s empathy on social media, leading to extreme reactions. According to the post “Demeaning words online–Exaggerated empathy’s limitation protected by anonymous mask”, it addresses the question why people empathize more for Sun Yang while leading to lack of empathy for Mack Horton. With regard to the post, Mack Horton’s remark of Sun Yang as “drug cheater” in interview, which is uploaded later online, has brought huge outpourings of rage towards him on social media. People condemned Mack Horton as violating Olympic spirits and lacking of respect towards competitors. The truth is, according to the post, Sun was using a medication for his heart problem, but unfortunately, it contained a substance which had just been banned as a new type of stimulant while related departments have not updated that rule. Objectively speaking, nothing should be regarded as wrong on the side of Mack since Sun did take banned medicine. Meanwhile, on the side of Sun, he should not be labelled as “Drug Cheat” regarding that the nature of his violation should be regarded as an accident instead of an intended action. According to the post, the in-group preference was exaggerated under the protection of anonymous “mask” so that social media users can express their ideas, even in extremely demeaning words, without having to be responsible. With the development of social media moving forward, such kind of empathy preference is affecting more and more social media users. And more importantly, such kind of exaggerated, irresponsible or even illegal empathy pouring may sometimes result in severer consequence than that in real life.
In a word, the involvement of empathy did help people to live and work morally, but we should still be aware of the limitations brought by. The very nature of empathy, specifically, its dependence on referents and in-group preference in both real and virtual life deserves people concern while we are seeking for a better way to apply and perform empathy to consolidate interpersonal relationships and pursue social justice.
Fuchsman, Ken. “Empathy and Humanity.” The Journal of psychohistory, vol. 42, no. 3, 2015., pp. 176.
Buie, D. H. “Empathy: Its Nature and Limitations.” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, vol. 29, no. 2, 1981., pp. 281.