We Should Offer Universal Empathy Instead of Relational Empathy

Today I was reading the quick book, Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (it’s actually a great little parenting guide), and came across this line:

“Teach her to question men who can have empathy for women only if they see them as relational rather than as individual equal humans. Men who, when discussion rape, will always say something like ‘if it were my daughter or wife or sister.’ Yet such men do not need to imagine a male victim of crime as a brother or son in order to feel empathy.” (29)

This sort of response happened over and over again in reaction to Donald Trump’s “pussy grabbing” comments last year. Men (politicians in particular) were outraged on behalf of wives, daughters, mothers.

Somehow they couldn’t just be outraged. Their outrage only mattered if it had a relational component.

I know others made similar criticisms at the time, but Adichie summed it up very succinctly.

All people are human beings and worthy of dignity and respect. It’s sad and frustrating that we’re more willing to give empathy when we connect to people. I suppose that’s only practical.

But it cheapens our humanity.

It means we can withhold empathy when we hold people at an arm’s length. It’s how we justify lynching and genocide, or simpler things like ignoring homeless people.

In talking about racism and #BlackLivesMatter, I’ve been tempted to use my son as an example. But I realized I’m doing the same thing: I’m asking people to be empathetic because it’s my son, when empathy should be extended regardless.

We should care about injustice to black people because it is injustice, not because it could happen to my son.

We should fight “pussy grabbing” because it is always wrong, not because it could happen to our wives or daughters or mothers.

We need to learn how to practice universal empathy.

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