Overcoming the Empathy problem in Activism (Part I)


Written by Celeste Welch

During my privileged small town American childhood, I quickly learned that traits associated with conventional ‘femininity’ were akin to weakness. To purify myself of this, I engaged in countless behaviours that I associated with strength, independence, and worthiness. Years later, while reflecting on my childhood, I realized that the characteristics that I had endeavoured to purge from my being and activism were not femaleness, but compassion and empathy, which I thought I had possessed in excess simply by being female. The world had forced me, from the early age of four or five, to enact my own emotional hardening as a tool for survival in an American culture that tends to shame people of all genders for expressing compassion.

Initially, this was terrifying to grasp. The anti-empathy culture around us is certainly palpable, but more as a background noise of interpersonal disconnection than the tidal wave of hatred it truly is. This discussion – Part I of II – aims to scratch the surface of how our empathy problem negatively impacts our potential to cultivate a more caring, functional, and productive society. In Part II of this series, coming out next week, I will introduce a few exercises which can help in the daily lives of individuals and potentially allow us as activists to get back on track towards achieving what we want.

Asserting that we as members of a western or American culture have an empathy problem is not, by any means, a revolutionary idea. More times than I can count, I have heard activists and nihilists from all walks of life come to the same conclusion: humanity is toxic. “We can’t do it” or “humanity is so selfish” are common downtrodden responses of disillusioned change makers upon realizing the true extent of our mainstream culture’s interpersonal and empathetic detachment through various means.

Rally against Kinder Morgan oil pipeline on Burnaby Mountain. Image by Mark Klotz via Flickr.

A political reformer watching a corrupt law get signed into action. An environmentalist staring at heaps of garbage on the way to the landfill. An animal rights advocate watching people gorge themselves on factory farmed meat. A human rights activist witnessing the current atrocities of the American internment camps. I could go on. We have all felt the sinking feeling that comes with caring about something and not being able to solve the problem or share that feeling with others who can. We have all felt our apparent uselessness as change makers.

Many of us want to believe that our individual effort will have the power to make a change, but, when faced with a constant stream of negative input – the realities of anthropogenic change, biodiversity loss, water pollution – it is easy to be discouraged. In fact, this feeling of daring to care and being crushed can be so painful that it leads many individuals to shirk activism or involvement in anything that does not directly impact their lives via a positive feedback loop of wealth and achievement. Thus, the first step towards reclaiming our empathy and humanness is to accept that it is okay to feel this pain. However, left unaddressed, much of that emotion can transform into a latent rage. This rage is often left unchecked, to slowly seep out and deflate our cause through pointed quips which serve no purpose other than to dismantle the objectivity of our arguments. In order to succeed, we must also come to terms with the pain that we bear as activists and learn how to transform it for positive social and ecological change.

We don’t teach classes in school about dealing with painful emotion. When I was young, I wondered why I would get so worked up about the cruelty in the world that I would cry hot tears. I felt such a strong desire to protect the Earth, humans, and animals from suffering that I often became lightheaded; I still feel that way at times. Although we like to pretend that we have lost touch with our childhood idealism, all of us still want something to believe in. Seeing people act selflessly fills even the emptiest hearts.

The crux of the anti-empathy society is that we are taught that we are alone. We are single entities, little data points floating through the world that can neither perfectly know ourselves nor others. Despite this, we are inherently social creatures. A society that tells us that it is wrong to ask for help, to practice empathy, to reach out to others, to express ourselves, to say how we’re really doing, to express gratitude, exists completely outside of the realm of reality which is applicable to social mammals. We are constantly in need of comfort and feelings of social belonging. We are taught that needing is wrong, we are taught that we are alone in our fights, whatever they may be. The misconception that we are alone in the world leads to fragmentation and hatred within any movement. Any viewpoint which even slightly verges upon ‘other’ or divergent is seen as a threat. Red warning lights go off: intruder alert.

Myself and other activists and attempted change-makers have spent collective hours considering and feeling the weight of this problem. Any good activist knows how to have a conversation like a salesman without being kitschy, but, only the best are able to truly practice radical empathy themselves. As I write this, I realize how much farther I personally have to go in the process of dismantling my hardened shell. It is a journey of learning through unlearning how we have been taught to make ourselves.

Celeste Welch, photo via WWF McGill Student Club Facebook page, with permission.Celeste Welch is a Biomedical Engineering graduate student at Brown University and a developer of accessible green devices. While at McGill as an undergraduate, they engaged in environmental activism in the McGill and Montreal communities, notably founding campus groups and working as a WWF ambassador. Celeste’s efforts as an activist have been recognized via the “Top 25 Environmentalists Under 25” award, in addition to others. Their interests lie in the intersection of STEM and environmentalism and making these disciplines accessible to the general public. They are interested in developing technologies for environmental improvement and are fascinated by how communication and social factors shape activism.

One Comment on “Overcoming the Empathy problem in Activism (Part I)

  1. Pingback: Overcoming the Empathy problem in Activism (Part II) – Connecting Conservation

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