the errancy of empathy

“If only we could seek to understand each other, our world would be a better place.” It’s a common refrain and one I happen to find convincing. That idea is in fact a major piece of The Idealect. But it’s not all of it. Reality is more complicated than this.

What happens when we come to an understanding that our differences with someone are more than simple misunderstandings? What happens when our differences are a matter of distinct, even irreconcilable values? How far does empathy take us?

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Often times we as individuals share values but not strategies. The pursuit of shared ends is not confined by uniformity.

At other times, there exists a perceived difference in values. Our assumptions serve only to accentuate the minor differences between ourselves and make the reconcilable irreconcilable.

But sometimes, it is truly a difference in values. What then?

It seems that empathy for another individual is always possible, even if empathy toward their ideas and beliefs is not. But when it comes to the practicalities, how do we move forward?

What if recognizing humanity doesn’t go far enough? I can recognize the humanity in another person but what if they hold values antithetical, opposed to mine? Am I not obligated to stand up for my values?

Of course a diversity of ideas, beliefs and values is exactly what makes this world a beautiful place. It’s by no means a noble task to force my values on others. But it’s not hard to understand the fact that each of us would like to live in a society that shares, at least to a degree, our own values.

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It’s not enough to focus only on our similarities as individuals. It’s not enough to focus only on what unites us if it's at the expense of what divides us.

The heart of The Idealect is found in recognizing and acknowledging our values but more so in grappling with them. We can do well by acknowledging where we differ with others in our beliefs and principles but if we don’t understand the foundations and roots of our own values, our ability to understand others is truncated.

The narrative of unity is valuable but not if it’s at the expense of regarding difference. Empathy can only be regarded as the road to justice if it’s tethered to a notion of individual agency. 

The errancy of the worldview built solely upon empathy is that it doesn’t allow for a principled deviation from the accepted standards of communal society. As individuals, we need the ability to challenge the constraints of society. We need to explore, for this is the only way to grow.

It’s a difficult point to make: that there’s immense value in exploring our differences. Our world is divided enough as it is. But an exploration of differences doesn’t have to act as a wedge. Exploring our differences isn’t the same as focusing on what divides us. If done well, exploring our differences allows us to know ourselves and each other better, allows us to see the humanity in ourselves and others in all it’s shining glory and decrepit fallibility.

Disagreement, controversial ideas, uncomfortableness, offense, grit… they’re all part of life. To disregard and avoid them is to miss one of life’s gifts.