Should We Ever Empathize With The Oppressor?

Last week, in the Enlightened Empathy Facebook group, we upped the stakes a little with our empath discussion question. The question was asked, “when it comes to social justice, should we ever empathize with the oppressor?” It was such a fascinating discussion, I want to post some of the responses here. But first, a Public Service Announcement:

We all do not need to have all of the conversations—black people need NOT have discussions with white people about how they’re being racist and why racism is bad; women need NOT have discussions with men about how they’re being sexist and why sexism is bad. It’s dumb we’re still at an age where we have to have these conversations, so if you don’t feel up to them, I honor your need to take space. Seriously, look after yourself!

AND…

Secondly, as a group (not as individuals) there are conversations that still need to be had.  If things keep going the way they are, we will never learn, we will never grow and we will never heal. It is important for some of us to feel stretched in healthy ways and when we have enough resource and strength to cope with that stretch. So please check in with yourself before you read on.

Here goes:

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“There is no absolute answer to this. To paraphrase, many cultures say hate the oppression, love the oppressor. Not all oppressors were victims. Some are pure evil.
To sum up, I’d have to consider this on a case by case basis. Being empaths, many of us have an x-ray vision into other people’s intentions.”

I do empathize with some oppressor’s because of their mental illness, some never received the help they needed. However, I tend to empathize more with most of the oppressor’s families. They hurt, too”

“To empathize with someone is not always a matter of agreeing with them. It is simply trying to understand where they are coming from. Once you understand a person’s story, and the reasons behind their actions, solutions come more easily. That solution could be to love or hate, that choice develops from your own raison d’etre. There is nothing wrong with trying to understand any situation.”

“The devil needs no advocacy, IMO. I recognize that hurt people hurt people and feel some sort of way (maybe like a mild form of pity?) but work hard to center the feelings/lived experience of the oppressed.”

“Now I say this as a person apart of one of the particular oppressed groups being mentioned. To hate a person, even an oppressive person is to still allow yourself to be filled with hate. I’m not saying you have to love them either. For myself instead of going from one extreme to the next. I just don’t give them the energy of my attention. Which brings point that is a bit annoying. To be oppressed and to be a victim are not synonymous. A person could very reasonably be both. However, if you are not apart of that group please don’t decide for yourself that they are victims. From personal experience, you put a person in a horrible position when you decide they are victims. In a lot of ways without meaning to you stop listening, and lack faith that this person is capable. Let people decide for themselves whether or not they would like the oppression they are under to make/or keep them as victims. At that is strictly my opinion and request from personal experience.”

I don’t believe all oppressors are evil. I also don’t believe that empathizing with a person means you approve or justify their actions. I can empathize even though I feel someone’s actions are inappropriate. Not all people who empathize become victims. I think I may have missed an earlier conversation. Your question is so broad that I could read it many different ways.”

“No I don’t think we need to empathise with oppressors BUT we should show compassion. I think there needs to be some clarification around empathy vs sympathy/compassion because it’s pertinent to this question. Empathy is feeling someone else’s pain or pleasure. But sympathy is “an imaginative attempt to sense another’s otherness without purporting to appropriate or own their existential uniqueness.” Empathy is not useful in this situation because an over-identified response to another’s anguish offer leads to personal distress and inaction. Especially in terms of social policy, there is a need for rational objectivity as our decisions based solely on empathy are usually biased and based on personal values/beliefs. We usually empathise more easily with someone who has a similar situation or looks like we do. That doesn’t lead to the best moral decisions. I think there is a place for sympathising with our oppressors to try and understand where their views are originating to go to the root cause of the behaviour. Paul Bloom has some interesting points to make on this in his book “Against Empathy: a case for rational compassion.”

A few days later, I saw this post on Facebook:

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So what do you think? Leave your answers in the comments section below.

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