I feel your pain … No. You don’t. To the single parent of three young children living on the breadline, in a flat in Glasgow. To the young black man living in London. To the octogenarian living in a care home. To the NHS nurse going back to work after being ill with Covid-19. And literally (not figuratively!) to everyone else in the world: I have almost no idea at all about your lives; about your loves, likes and dislikes or how you’ll respond to the challenges of today and tomorrow.
I can’t know.
I won’t ever know.
So … how does society function if we are all so ill-informed about each other?
I would argue that a central paradox to the human condition is the clear realisation and acceptance that we cannot possibly accurately empathise with someone else, and yet at the same time, we should all strive to do exactly that.
To remain open and curious. To learn. To change and adapt. To understand.
If we accept that we should aim to be as empathetic as possible, whilst also acknowledging that we cannot put ourselves fully into that person’s current life or their pre-existing history, the question then arises: What can we do to get as close to the real “other” as imaginable?
An approach you could take, which often seems paradoxical in itself, is to adopt a worldview that suggests there are many versions of ‘the truth’ and that one version of the truth is not more worthy than the next. It is a form of relativism.
Philosophically, we can tie ourselves in knots quite quickly with this idea but according to Rorty (1991) there are basically three different shades of relativism:
- Every belief is as good as every other
- There are as many truths as means of justifying them
- There is nothing to say about either truth or rationality, other than in the context of forms of inquiry
The first variation of relativism in the list above, gets us well and truly lost, very fast. Circular conversations abound. By that’s just my ‘truth’ about it!!! The third is frankly unfathomable to me. So, let’s focus on the second point in the list above. What if I accepted that someone’s view of something important, was a real ‘truth’ for them, at least for this moment, even if it opposes my own views/truths? What if we allowed ourselves the space to accept an alternative view, regardless of how contrary it may at first appear?
What might that mean for me, us, society?
• Initially, I would have to become less defensive of my position/truth.
• There is a chance provided for me to grow and be differently informed.
• More data is generated, to help me, when I next need to empathise towards someone else.
• I am more likely to accept this person as they are, at least initially.
• Any of my objections, rebuttals or even agreements of their position, comes from a more informed decision.
It becomes easier to travel alongside another person. To put yourself in their shoes. Achieving empathy is closer.
Yet, don’t misunderstand me, I am not suggesting being open to understanding someone else’s point of view means you have to agree with it. Far from it. Once you have a better appreciation of them and their perspective you can, more consciously choose your response. But not recognising that the ‘other’ has created a justification for their own truth, from their life experiences, internal narratives, psychological frameworks, etc etc is to fail to empathise with them as best you can, using a relativist perspective. You are denying someone the provenance of their views and as a consequence you are denying an integral part of their ‘self.’
I feel your pain … No. You don’t.
I genuinely believe there is greater danger in deluding ourselves that we are able to empathise with others than accepting we can’t. And then, getting down to the hard personal work, with humility, to discover more – about them?
Possibly. And about ourselves? For sure. With this greater information, as Yale Professor Paul Bloom suggests, we can adopt a logic-led compassionate response, which is likely to be more enabling for me and ultimately more helpful for the other person, than feigning 20:20 empathy-vision.