Are there limits to empathy?

  1. 1.     If you seek to work with people who are coming from a place that doesn’t match yours, realize that you either have to tell a story that matches what they’re able to hear (tell your jokes in Italian), or work hard to change what they believe and what they want (possible, but really difficult).

TRIGGER WARNING: My post this week contains reference to campus-based sexual violence, so please know that before you read further.

This week’s prompt raised a lot of intense and valuable conversation in our Tuesday group, to whom I am grateful for their openness and insights. We talked at the feeling level about our reactions to the prompt, given our experiences in a range of contexts where power, significant differences in power, was a core issue, and where power was exerted to humiliate, condemn, malign, or otherwise harm another person or group. In this context, I find going to empathy EXTREMELY challenging. While I agree that empathy does not mean agreement, it does mean understanding, or as Brene Brown would suggest, it means accessing that place in ourselves where we know the feelings the other person may be experiencing. But are there limits to empathy? As a beginning student in the practice of NVC (non-violent communication), I would imagine Marshall Rosenberg would have said that empathy is the bridge that fuels connection and makes change possible.

And yet… I shared with my group the example of a situation involving a gang rape on the campus where I was the women’s center director. Part of my job included accompanying students to the hospital for rape kits. In this particular instance, the student survivor, raped at an on-campus party by multiple people who actually carried her down a hallway while she screamed for help to the inactive bystanders whom they passed, came forward for help because her best friend was at another college and insisted she get medical attention. While we were at the hospital for the exam, she was already receiving text messages from the perpetrators, fellow student athletes, threatening her that she better not tell anyone what they had done to her. I was appalled, enraged, and filled with despair. Our motto was “Men and women for others”, yet when it really, really matter, no one helped her, to say nothing of the students who committed this crime.

So, I began reading everything I could find on responses to campus-based sexual violence. I met with experts. I came up with a plan, based on emerging evidence about best practices. The VP of my division gave me the green light to write a federal grant application to get funding for a bystander intervention program. It took me six weeks, working my regular job plus every night and all weekend each weekend until the deadline loomed. I had 12 of the 13 needed signatures, which I had gathered through many relational meetings, curriculum demonstrations, and organizing of students. The 13th, the University president, refused to sign. The project seemed dead. How would we move forward with prevention efforts without funding or institutional support?

My VP (poster boy for Catholic higher education, favored “child” of the University president, later disappeared from the university due to his participation as a client in a sex trafficking ring, but this all transpired before the local police came to campus to find him) washed his hands of the incident. He didn’t care what I did, so long as I didn’t involve him. I asked for a meeting with the EVP of the University. I pleaded my case. I tried to get him to see things from my point of view, from the point of view from the students who were being sexually violated in our own residence halls. During the meeting, he looked at his watch and stifled a yawn.

Less than a decade before, literally a stone’s throw from the campus, Cardinal Bernard Law was found responsible for hiding the sexual abuse crisis in Boston, throughout the diocese, and, as the story was exposed, throughout the U.S. He was rewarded by the Church for his shell game of moving priests who were sex offenders (mostly sexually abusing children from poor families led by single mothers) with a post in Italy as the archpriest of the Papal Liberian Basilica of St. Mary Major.

It occurred to me that my superiors at Boston College envisioned their own rewards for silence on this issue of campus sexual violence.

I admit, I could not see their points of view. I did not have empathy. I had rage. It was rage that propelled me forward, looking for anyone I could find who could help me know what to do. A colleague of mine who had grown up in higher ed (her father was a dean, a provost, etc.) and had honed her own skills at Harvard, an institution infamously indifferent to the needs of marginalized persons, explained: I would have to go back to them and let them know that not only were they violating federal laws (Clery, Title IX, and VAWA), but a student would be likely to sue very soon, and the story would be on the news at 5.

And so I went back to the VP and got another meeting with the EVP. It was brief. I told him, “We’re going to be sued over this kind of incident [referencing the gang rape] and it will be on the cover of The Boston Globe”. I left, feeling utterly defeated. And then several weeks later, I received a terse email from my VP, letting me know that in the new fiscal year, we would be given an internal grant for $100,000 to develop the bystander education program. This was a sum equivalent to the VAWA grant. Ten times more than any annual budget my office had had in its 37-year history on campus.

By this time, I had decided to go back to school for my PhD and knew I would not be on campus for the new fiscal year. And I wanted to be excited, but instead I despaired. We got the money, but only because they were fearful of keeping their jobs and maintaining the image of the institution. Is this a version of telling a story they were able to hear? They didn’t care about sexual violence on campus, they didn’t care about our campus culture, or even the culture of our athletic teams. They only cared about damaging stories that could appear in the local newspaper. Perhaps that was the end of my innocence, or the beginning of wisdom, or some insight about how the world and people work. But it felt like defeat.

To this day, I cannot muster empathy for these men and I do not understand their point of view. I can recognize that they had needs for power in their world, control. They used strategies of image maintenance to protect the reputation of their brand and to maintain their power. They had a lot of power. They also had no empathy for victims of sexual violence in our community, even as their brand was built on fuzzy warm ideas about belonging and service and cura personalis (care of the person) and even social justice. I am at a loss because I fundamentally do not understand this world view, just like I do not understand separating children from their families and keeping them in cages (one of the critical issues raised by a member of our Tuesday group); or punishing people who have the courage to be clear about their gender identities even when those do not match identities assigned at birth; or knowing children are mowed down by people with guns – police or others- and still refusing to close loopholes in gun laws instead of prioritizing the safety of the most vulnerable members of our society.  

All of these issues, the story I shared, the ones we discussed in our Tuesday group, and more, leave me wondering – where does empathy end and power analysis begin?

Paul Piff’s research suggests that after a certain point in the process of wealth acquisition, human beings lose our capacity to think with empathy. Our brains are literally hijacked by greed, and it is very difficult for us to make decisions for the common good. I think we are seeing this now with #45 and many of his decisions, as well as those of his political allies and their supporters. What is the role of empathy in this context? It is not appropriate to diagnose a person I have not actually seen in a clinical setting, but if I were to make an educated guess, I think it is likely that #45 and even those “poster boys” for the Catholic Church’s finest “family” men, would be considered to meet a threshold for narcissistic personality disorder. People who have this type of disorder often belittle others to make themselves feel superior, exaggerate their accomplishments, easily feel slighted and are quick to act with vengeance, expect special favors, and display a pathological lack of empathy for others. Does it matter if I understand them? Does it matter if I experience empathy toward them? If I am not willing to give in to their demands, accept the walls they have constructed, or agree to their worldview, is a relationship or a relational way of doing business, even feasible? This is not a rhetorical question. I don’t have an answer. I am curious about your experiences with people who lack empathy and who hold great power. Has empathy served as a bridge? Or has it been used to pervert the change you seeking to make? Or both? Or neither?

Reflection Script. Thank you for the empathy and support in each of the comments people shared on my post this week. I am grateful.

Juan Francisco wisely asked, “if you were to run into the same situation today where you work, how would you approach it differently? Assuming the years, writing and studying since those days have made you wiser, what would you do to stop that from happening again?”

I think this is a good beginning question. What would I do differently? I don’t think it is likely I could have done much about the senior administrators’ lack of empathy or interest, because the structure is so hierarchical there, as in many institutions, it would have been difficult to get much access to these leaders without a very specific purpose/crisis. And while my colleagues who knew what was happening were outraged, they were also afraid to say much. They didn’t know how. Sexual assault was a taboo subject. Openly questioning institutional authority was even more taboo.

However, as Carrie pointed out, even though it is not my/our jobs, I wonder if things would have been different if I could have imagined each of these men as confused children? That may have helped me to see them differently, and to hold that lens as I investigated Felipe’s questions about their own cultural waters and thought about how to change it.

Perhaps, then I could have used my NVC skills, while still being clear, especially with myself, about Magelette and Yessica’s wisdom about doing the work and the power analysis as part of the work.

I imagine saying to the EVP, “I see you yawning and looking at your watch. Are you feeling bored? Uncomfortable?” I could take some needs guesses, “Do you need some fresh air? Some movement? Shall we walk together?” He would have been so flummoxed by my directness (not part of the lace curtain Irish culture), I’m not sure what he would have said! LOL!!! He probably would have brushed off my questions as too intimate, inappropriate, or uncomfortable. The end result would probably be the same: I raised legitimate concerns about potential lawsuits and unwanted media attention, so he would have found the funds for the prevention education program, knowing he fulfilled his promise to the University president to keep the school off of the cover of the Globe due to negative press.

When I was preparing to leave the University, my favorite Jesuit, Fr. Jack, told me, “You’ll feel anger. Maybe not right away, but about six months from now, it will hit you”. I had not told him the story about the student who had been sexually assaulted by several other students in one of our residence halls, but he seemed to understand something about the place: enough people were invested in the status quo, it was not about to change. For those of us who could not tolerate it, leaving would bring relief and also a kind of internal reckoning, required for recalibrating to live in the world anew.

And perhaps this goes to two things we’ve discussed: why me/why us/WHY NOW? And Yessica’s question: If they are not capable of empathy, what does this mean for the rest of us? In the past year, that same University has had to contend with waves of protests about race-based bias incidents, multiple student suicides, and a federal lawsuit related to its handling of Title IX cases. The concerns I and others have raised in the past are recurring ones. And though it may be cold comfort, I can’t help but think that empathy or not, those guys who run the place will have to contend with history. I wonder if they are thinking about what it means to be a righteous gentile? Does Dr. King’s wise warning, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice”, rest heavy on their minds? Maybe even that does not matter, because what we resist persists; perhaps this time, someone up there on The Heights will finally think to inquire how things are for their own students? Or not. But eventually, I have to hope, those old, rigid ways will dissolve in to the world’s unfolding.

5 thoughts on “Are there limits to empathy?”

  1. Yes yes yes yes yes. Sometimes we need to worry about understanding, redeeming, healing the other only once they have taken their boot off of the faces of our friends. Only after we have won. Only after we can get the gun out of their hands and de-escalate, stem the bleeding. We are called to solidarity with a particular side, not all sides. The oppressed, the weak, the poor, the hurting. Certainly we are all hurting. Certainly oppressor and oppressed can be States of being and not static identities. And yet if we are intellectually dishonest enough to pretend we cannot see which is which, we are lost and our deepest prayer needs to be for wisdom and forgiveness.

    *Deep breath*

    I learned about NVC as a peacebuilding major in undergrad and have found it very useful personally and professionally. I was struck recently by some of it’s limitations when I took my partner to a workshop and the facilitator presented the concept of “faux emotions” in a way that felt gas light-y and deeply problematic from a race and gender lense. We were told that feeling “oppressed” is not a real emotion and to have someone say “I feel oppressed” and their partner say “When you say you feel oppressed do you mean that you feel sad/angry/frustrated (some “real” emotion) And it felt like NVC needed 2019. Anyways. Thanks Sheila

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh wow. I’m still reeling after having read this post. I feel very drawn into connection through your powerful writing Sheila. I can feel all those emotions you expressed all over me. And like you in your post, I also imagine feeling the rage, hopelessness, and disappointment you did. In that context, I’m reminded about a person here in Miami who is an advocate for minority businesses but uses very strong-arm tactics to get people of power to grant her audiences and make a change, even if its just scraps (something is better than nothing?).

    I can’t help but empathize with you and how going through the exercise of empathy could have been unthinkable. Maybe if I had to offer you something to reflect on it would be the following:

    Given your analysis, if you were to run into the same situation today where you work, how would you approach it differently? Assuming the years, writing and studying since those days have made you wiser, what would you do to stop that from happening again?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sheila, wow. thank you. I’m humbled you are here. And so grateful for this story, this burning question… and the complexity of violence, and how those who hold power are complicit in the violence by perpetuating systems, and inaction and covering up sexual violence by avoiding it.

    “If I am not willing to give in to their demands, accept the walls they have constructed, or agree to their worldview, is a relationship or a relational way of doing business, even feasible?”

    To me, your questions really help me complexify this prompt. I think the purpose of this prompt for me was to reflect on how we make change… how we change culture, how we change what the sentiment that “people like us, do things like this””

    So, to engage with the university VP and EVP, I wonder….
    What culture do they swim in?
    How can we change that?
    As a man with privilege, I want to be more of a vocal ally on this kind of work. Sheila, I’m sorry that when all this was happening, I’m sad I wasn’t more of a better companion for you. This horrifies me to think this is likely still happening all over. This is important work.
    thanks for your helpful questions that push this work further.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this. I can’t imagine how horrendous that must have been to bring have experienced all this and the staunch apathy of the administration in response. Rage definitely feels like the appropriate emotional response. Thinking about it now, it makes total sense to me that you can’t empathize with these men. We talk about empathy like it’s a one-way street, but it isn’t. You can’t assume how someone else is feeling if they show you nothing. Their outward displays of indifference, their yawns? They are giving you absolutely nothing to empathize with! I imagine there’s a scared, confused child in their somewhere, that if we could dig deeply enough, we could empathize with. And, it’s not our job to find it. It’s theirs.

    I wrote another piece partly inspired by your post that I’m adding to my own reflection script.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Sheila,

    Thank you for your vulnerability in sharing this experience. I was very angry when I heard it on Tuesday and after reading your post, I’m just as angry, if not more!

    I wonder if we ever get to a point where there is simply no information we can possibly gather to really understand their position. Your statement of “brains are literally hijacked by greed” made me think about their responsibility. If they are not capable of empathy, what does this mean for the rest of us? Do they deserve to be in power? How do we deal with “people who lack empathy and who hold great power”?

    Is there anything that can be learned from this experience?

    Liked by 1 person

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