Who is the Empathy For?

When I was in high school, the U.S. was fighting a war in Vietnam. One day, I heard on the radio a story about a young Vietnamese woman who was returning one evening from her work in the rice paddies when she saw American warplanes soaring overhead. She ran for her village as fast as she could, but when she arrived, she found the village strafed, the huts burning, and her family and neighbors decimated. I instantly identified with this Vietnamese peasant girl who, through no wrongdoing on her part, had seen life as she’d known it destroyed in one fell swoop.

From that time on, I became an adamant opponent of all wars of aggression. Do you remember the first Gulf War? When the U.S.-led coalition had won, and the Iraqi army, along with many civilians, was retreating from Kuwait, U.S. warplanes followed them and picked them off, one by one, despite the fact that firing on a retreating army is contrary to the rules of international warfare. The photos were all over CNN and the newspapers. It was called the Highway of Death. Like shooting fish in a barrel, CNN called it. I especially recall one photo of a bombed-out Chevrolet, the body of a young man half in, half out. Beside him was an open cat carrier. He had just been trying to get home with the family pet.

Most people in America thought that our actions were brave, heroic, splendid. I live near New York City, and I went down to see the big celebratory parade for our returning soldiers. People were  clapping in transports of ecstasy and shouting “US is No. 1!” as though it had been a football game.

Yeah, that would have been the Pittsburgh Steelers playing a death-match against the local high school team.

Several months ago, President Obama told the U.N. — without a trace of irony in his voice — that “peace cannot be achieved through violence.” Now, I voted for Obama twice and may do so again; I  only point him out as an example of typical thinking. It is only violence when they do it. Most people have plenty of empathy when 3,000 people like us were killed  on 9/11, but none at all for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and others who were subsequently killed “in retaliation.” People from places like Iraq and Vietnam, people who are homeless, people who look or act strange — well, the empathy of most people is not for the likes of them. Most people have plenty of empathy, but only for people like themselves.

About the Author: Charlie Devnet lives in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, with her cats, Boots and Heather. She was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at the age of 54, although she had suspected it for a long time. Her whole life has been spent on the outside, looking in.

Who is the Empathy For? was written expressly for Autism and Empathy.

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2 Responses to “Who is the Empathy For?”

  1. Great post. You’ve put your finger on one of the main reasons why empathy is so one-sided. Familiarisation.

    I sometimes find it very frustrating that I can’t feel sad about the death of someone closely connected but not well-known (such as an overseas relative) and yet, I can find myself feeling extremely sad about a non-human cartoon character who has less trouble in their life.

    For example, I can remember being very sad (as an adult) over a cartoon in which a toaster had trouble making toast (don’t bother trying to pick the cartoon because I can’t remember it either).

    I need to read about – or see – an event on an intimate and personal level in order to feel real empathy….and I need to be able to somehow tie it back to a similar feeling or experience of my own.

    In the case of the toaster – being a non-handy male, I’m very familiar with the feeling of being unable to do something that others similar to myself have no difficulty with. It’s easy for me to empathise with this concept.

    • Charli Devnet says:

      Empathy tends to be selective. You empathize more readily with those you identify with. Perhaps because I was a victim of bullies in school ( and in life), I tend to identify with the bullied rather those perpetrating acts of bullying. I also find that, as of late, I have to turn off the TV or avert my eyes from the newspaper when a story about animal cruelty is featured. Whereas I can read crime stories involving human beings or watch TV coverage on a tsunami in Japan, I cannot cope with the portrayal of an animal being victimized. Charli