Content/trigger warning: discussion of ableism
Hello, dear readers! This is going to be a fairly short entry, but it’s what my Patreon supporters voted on. So, here we go: empathy.
First off, please don’t Merriam-Webster at me with what empathy ~actually is. Dictionary definitions are okay starting points, but they certainly don’t encompass the entire meaning of every word. I mean, look at the dictionary definition of “sexism;” dictionary.com has you slog through two outdated definitions about discrimination based on gender before you get to the correct definition, “ingrained or institutionalized prejudice against women.”
With that out of the way, what the hell actually is empathy? Empathy is the ability to experience what another person is experiencing. Not to understand what another person is experiencing or to know that another person is to experience something, but to perceive that another person is experiencing something and experience it as well. This is part of why I get miffed when people say “empathy” when what they really mean is “compassion.” The other part is–you guessed it–ableism, which I’ll go into a little later.
So, types of empathy. Yes, there are types of empathy! I learned this from Eb Brandeberry (@ebthen on Twitter). The three types are cognitive, emotional (also called affective), and compassionate. Compassionate empathy is the closest to what most people mean when they say “empathy;” it’s when you literally feel someone else’s suffering when you know they’re suffering. Emotional empathy is like compassionate empathy, but for other people’s emotions instead of their suffering. Cognitive empathy is when you can put yourself into someone’s shoes in regards to their perspective without necessarily engaging with their emotions.
So what does any of this have to do with ableism? Various disabling neurodivergent conditions can involve inability to experience or difficulty experiencing the three types of empathy. Interestingly, sometimes being ND can lead to hyperempathy; because I’m Autistic, my emotional empathy is off the charts. However, my cognitive empathy is next to nonexistent, and my compassionate empathy depends on whether or not I can identify that someone is suffering. Because people misuse “empathy” so much, it’s hard to do research on which neurodivergent conditions actually involve low or none of whatever kind of empathy, but some personality disorders also are associated with low empathy (BPD, which I have, is associated with low cognitive empathy.) So saying things like “empathy is required to be a moral person” is ableist (specifically neurotypicalist, I guess), not only because you actually mean compassion but because not everyone is capable of empathy. You also want to be careful with how you discuss neurodivergence and empathy, because, for instance, Autisticness can be associated with high or low empathy of various kinds, not to mention symptoms can vary between individuals with the same condition. So just be careful to say exactly what you mean when discussing empathy.
And…wow, short entry. But I did say it would be short. Go forth and use words correctly!
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