Ridiculously Over-Engineered Approaches To Empathy

Ridiculously Over-Engineered Approaches To Empathy September 22, 2015

When I was complaining about a plane delay on facebook, a friend of mine generously bought me a kindle copy of Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone, and told me that I might particularly enjoy it as a recovering Stoic and Kantian.  She was right.

I also liked how much it reminded me of Ben Hoffman’s recent post on “Werewolf Feelings” but let’s address Drabble first.  Here’s a scene where the protagonist carefully doesn’t overreach with a lover.

And even then, at that moment, I did not have the courage to ask him where he lived, or to ask him what his phone number was, for it would have seemed an intrusion, an assumption that I had a right to know, that a future existed where it would be of use to know. I see, oh yes, I see that my diffidence, my desire not to offend looks like enough to coldness, looks like enough to indifference, and perhaps I mean it to, but this is not what it feels like in my head. But I cannot get out and say, Where do you live, give me your number, ring me, can I ring you? In case I am not wanted. In case I am tedious. So I let him go, without a word about any other meeting, though he was the one thing I wanted to keep.

Meanwhile, in “Werewolf Feelings” (which you should read through to understand the title; it’s clever, but too long to excerpt):

The story of the werewolf reflects the moral premise or attitude that expressing a need is a form of moral coercion. By this model, other people are fragile, don’t know how to take care of themselves, are helplessly drawn towards your need as soon as you reveal it, and will burn themselves to ashes trying to care for you. And the ones who aren’t like that? Well, they know enough not to help you, they don’t want to help you, you’ll just make them feel awkward and maybe a little guilty.

This isn’t entirely true – people are perfectly capable of having boundaries and prioritizing the things that are important to them. It’s not a secret that 150,000 people die every day, and yet most people in the developed world don’t burn themselves out helping. Not even the ones who decide to do something about it. (There are, of course, exceptions.) But it isn’t entirely false – empathy is often involuntary. If someone is currently in an emotionally precarious state, that’s generally not the best time to show them how much they hurt you. If someone is feeling overwhelmed with life, that may not be the best time to tell them what you need from them. (There are, of course, exceptions here too.)

In this model, and in the protagonist’s of The Millstone, it’s hard to express a preference, a feeling, or a wish that doesn’t wind up sounding like a demand.  Ben doesn’t come up with an easy solution to balance one’s own needs and wants with the feelings of others, but he does invent some language that might make it easier to talk about the problem.

(wikimedia comons)

I’m a giant nerd, so I’m tempted to work on this problem by stealing from the protocols of researchers who have to ask survey participants about touchy subjects (drugs, crime, etc).  When a researcher asks something like “Have you ever shoplifted?” they add an extra instruction for the survey taker.  The participant is supposed to flip a coin and, if it comes up heads, answer “Yes” no matter what.  If it comes up tails, they answer truthfully.  That way, any particular “Yes” is deniable, but the researchers still can know the true prevalence of the crime (2 * [% “Yes” – 50]).

So, if I wanted it to be easier for someone to give a deniable “No” to a wish of mine like “I wish I were sometimes met at the airport after a trip” I’d need a way for involuntary “Nos” to happen.  My best idea is to send my requests by, what for lack of a better word, I could call Werewolf Post.  Half the time, the werewolves (or the program aping them) would eat the message and it would never reach the recipient.  When an ask made it through, it would include a note that mentioned that half of asks don’t, and if the person doesn’t feel like doing the thing I asked, I won’t know if it was a refusal or just that the message got eaten.

The resolution in The Millstone is a little less calculating and a little more caritas-y.  When others depend on us, our own needs are a little more important:

As a child, I used to endure any discomfort rather than cause offense. I would eat things I loathed, freeze to death in underheated sitting rooms, roast under hair dryers, drink in cafes from chipped and filthy cups, rather than offend hosts, waitresses, hairdressers. To me, the pain of causing trouble was greater than anything that myself within myself could endure. But as I grow older, I find myself changing a little. Partly it is because, with Octavia, I cannot inflict all hardship on myself alone: what I take for myself, she gets too.

The more that a life involves others, the more it is impossible to be tempted to take self-denial too far, because it can never be solely self-denial.

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