Yesterday evening I found it strangely ironic (if not hypocritical) that a proud Armenian who likely curses the Turks for their genocide of his people expressed the belief that people hate Jews because they deserve it. Blaming the victim has always been a popular technique for those who commit evil, and our hatred of others tends to blind us to the fact that by the standard we hold others to we seldom look very good. One thing that it is easy to learn when getting to know other traditions and backgrounds is that a lot of people grow up with tales of martyrdom that give them a bit of a chip on their shoulder about the way that the world is often hostile to them and to their perspective and approach, and it gives people the strength to hold on to beliefs that are unpopular to the point of being persecuted. And yet many of us find it hard to be empathetic to the struggles that other people face in this regard, which is something I have always found mystifying.
Throughout the past few days, there has been a rash of arson attacks on Catholic churches around the country. This is not something I would have necessarily known about before, but as it happens I have a fair amount of Catholic acquaintances who bring such matters to the attention of others considering the nonexistent press coverage of anti-Christian violence in the United States and around the world. When one reads stories of the Vendee in France or the Mexican persecution of the Cristeros in Mexico, it is easy to see that there is a significant degree of concern when secular authorities are in anti-religious attitudes. I grew up in a religious tradition where the connection of church and state was viewed as threatening, but a connection of irreligion and state can be just as dangerous to believers, and can put one in a place where one is dealing with the same experiences as others with whom one might not think oneself to be all that sympathetic originally until the shared experience leads to a sense of empathy over the shared reality of being targeted by those who are hostile to God’s ways in whatever package they happen to come.
Empathy is a hard thing to get. Theoretically speaking, at least, there is the potential to gain empathy whenever we go through the same sort of experiences that other people do. We can sympathize with others without shared experiences, but empathy requires that we have taken a walk in someone else’s shoes. Yet simply because we have the same sorts of experiences that others have does not mean that empathy is a result. We can have the same sort of experiences as others do but believe that we were blameless while other people were to blame, or that we did something differently than someone else that leads us to be hard on them even with the same experiences. Similarly, it is all too easy for people to try to weaponize empathy by seeking to encourage others to overlook any factors that might have made matters worse. Empathy can grant insight, and sometimes that insight is painful, but finding ways to help others gain insight is by no means easy and it is far easier to silently judge and turn our noses up at those who might expect us to understand what they are going through than go through the hard work of helping people to understand that knowing what someone’s experiences are like does not signify blanket approval of decisions that are being made.
In many ways, it seems as if empathy is an example of reasoning by analogy. When we can compare two things together, we are faced with the decision of whether to emphasize the similarities between them, the differences that distinguish them, or adopt some strategy that attempts to both compare and contrast. To the extent that we can see our experiences as being mirrored in the experiences of others, or our background with others, we are often led to feel more fondly and more compassionately towards someone else who reminds us of our own struggles and our own worth of being loved and respected even through and especially through such circumstances. To the extent that we focus on differences, though, we are led to reject the identification of our experience as being like that of others and of the positive feelings that result from such identification. Sometimes we simply fail to see that situations are analogous in the first place, and at other times we do not see the similarities because we want to distinguish our experiences from others by viewing them as incommensurate. But the wise seek good analogies wherever they can be found, for human existence gives us few more powerful tools of insight than comparing case studies as we may find them in search of wisdom and knowledge.