Does Having Empathy Make You A Dick?

The heartbreaking, inspiring, impossible story of the former world’s fattest man:

He was born in Ipswich and had a childhood marked by two things, he says: the verbal and physical abuse of his father, a military policeman turned security guard; and three years of sexual abuse, starting when he was 6, by a relative in her 20s who lived in the house and shared his bed. He told no one until decades later.

After he left school, Mr. Mason took a job as a postal worker and became engaged to a woman more than 20 years older than him. “I thought it would be for life, but she just turned around one day and said, ‘No, I don’t want to see you anymore — goodbye,’ ” he said.

His father died, and he returned home to care for his arthritic mother, who was in a wheelchair. “I still had all these things going around in my head from my childhood,” he said. “Food replaced the love I didn’t get from my parents.” When he left the Royal Mail in 1986, he said, he weighed 364 pounds.

Then things spun out of control. Mr. Mason tried to eat himself into oblivion. He spent every available penny of his and his mother’s social security checks on food. He stopped paying the mortgage. The bank repossessed their house, and the council found them a smaller place to live. All the while, he ate the way a locust eats — indiscriminately, voraciously, ingesting perhaps 20,000 calories a day. First he could no longer manage the stairs; then he could no longer get out of his room. He stayed in bed, on and off, for most of the last decade.

Most people, I imagine, read this—the abuse, the loneliness, the sense of helplessness—and feel sorry for this dude. Everyone deals with personal and family problems in unique, unbeautiful ways. This dude just happens to have chosen a way that profoundly affected his health and quality of life. This story almost invites you to go ‘Aw, poor guy.’

It’s harder when you don’t know the backstory. If you saw this guy at a restaurant, nearly 1,000 pounds, inhaling fried chicken, French fries, chocolate cake, washing it down with a milkshake, he’d probably make you sick to your stomach. You’d probably comment to a friend, ‘this guy is disgusting’, turn the other way.

We don’t realize the extent to which we learn one thing about someone and let it take over our entire opinion of them. You read this article and you know he’s fat, but you also know the abuse, the torn relationships, how he’s now reversed the spiral, how hard he’s trying. When you see a fat person at a restaurant, all you know is how they appear and what they’re eating. In both cases, you use the information you have to make a judgement. In that restaurant, you just don’t realize how little information you have.

But this is the part where I really suck at this. When I see a significantly overweight person in public, I end up assuming there’s a sympathetic backstory, an understandable reason they got this way. Maybe their dad just died and eating is a way to feel comfort. Maybe they have a hormonal imbalance. Or maybe they were just born with a crazy-slow metabolism and they have completely accepted their size and don’t feel any need to apologize for it. Good for them! I think, feeling kind and wise.

I fundamentally have no information about these people. I don’t know their first names, or where they grew up, or who their friends are or how they treat them. If it’s dickish to see a fat person at a restaurant and assume ‘they must be lazy’, isn’t it dickish to assume the opposite, that they must have an emotional or personal or physical reason for their obesity?

In other words, is kneejerk empathy as patronizing as kneejerk judgement?

It’s not just overweight people. I do this all the time, explain away a person’s appearance and actions. I try really hard to give people the benefit of the doubt when they snap at their kids in public, cut me off in traffic, refuse to give up their seat to an old person on the train. Maybe they’re having a terrible day. Maybe they’re hurrying home to take care of their sick mom.  Maybe they’re just distracted. I’m no better than them, I tell myself, I’ve done all these things and worse.

Sometimes I think this makes me a left-wing cliche. There’s no such thing as bad behavior, only people who need a hug. On a society-wide scale, maybe judgement is better than empathy. If we know we’ll get nasty l0oks from our societal peers, maybe we’ll act better. Or at least look better.

Like everyone else, I haven’t found a way to make my actions match my beliefs. I lack the information to make any robust conclusions about the world around me, but even knowing that, I lack the ability not to. I wish I could see people and not assume anything at all. But until that happens, I should be sure about what I know before I decide what I think.


Filed under Personal, Serious

9 responses to “Does Having Empathy Make You A Dick?

  1. Eh, who cares if it’s patronizing or misguided or cliched or whatever. It’s better than walking around in a permanent boiling rage. It’s basically my coping mechanism for everything: invent a backstory where stuff makes sense.

  2. default empathy > default cruelty
    mostly for what it says about you, the actor, not the object of your actions
    Also, far from creating change, cruelty leads to arrogance while making the victim self-protective and defensive.

  3. alwaysmaya

    You seem to be doing all right. You give everybody the benefit of the doubt, AND you’re aware you don’t have all the information. Nothing dickish about that at all. I have a history of doing the same thing (the first part anyway), and it served me quite well until my life took a turn where I ended up associating with a lot of drug dealers. And oh, baby, do you ever need to get a new set of default assumptions about people in those circumstances. I don’t want to tell you how many times or in how many different ways I got ripped off assuming the best about people. It still drives me crazy to have to treat people with no trust, AND I still feel empathy for them even while they’re plotting ways to take advantage of me (there’s ALWAYS a back story, even if that back story culminates in turning them into dicks) but at least my self-protection mechanisms finally kicked in and I learned to draw boundaries.

  4. I enjoyed this article very much. I struggle with this as well and I find it irritates the hell out of some people. They say I make excuses for everyone! Maybe I do but it isn’t my intent. I think I’m just so aware of my own short-comings that I imagine everyone else has a few with their own backstories as well. I don’t know what is right or what is wrong, but I enjoyed the way you put this concept into words. It helps me to feel a little less like the only person out here who struggles with ‘calling a spade a spade’ so to speak. Thank you.

  5. There’s no such thing as bad behavior, only people who need a hug. On a society-wide scale, maybe judgement is better than empathy.

    “Judgement” and empathy are not mutually exclusive. As individuals and as a community, we need both.

    Behind all bad behaviour is a reason, a cause—that cause might be morally stigmatised like laziness, or morally endorsed, like grief. That doesn’t make the behaviour better or worse; it’s still bad behaviour. Deciding whether it’s any of our business to care, is a separate issue.

    Understanding the stick helps us make better carrots, and vice-versa. You need both to move the donkey. And if the donkey doesn’t move, well, that’s the donkey’s call.

    Judgements tell us as much about the judge as the judged. Empathy is sometimes patronising; that doesn’t make it insincere or worthless. Why do we feel it necessary to spend any emotional energy on it at all, though?

    Isn’t it as judgmental to judge yourself for not judging someone else, as it is to judge yourself for judging them? It strikes me as carrying liberal guilt to an extreme, to feel guilty because you feel for a fellow human being.

    Which, last time I checked, was a good thing.

    A good thing to anyone but Ayn Rand, Al Dunlap, Dick Cheney, Mitt Romney—or worse, Anne Romney—or my grandmother.

  6. No way is judgment better than empathy. Nothing good comes from judging others. Nothing good at all. Good things do come from empathy, though.

  7. Interesting. I’d say feel empathy freely where someone harms no-one but themselves, but moderate this when the person appears to be harming others instead. Because the latter approach to our own past (and we all have one of some kind) is something we can and should control rather than let it make us behave badly to others.

  8. Pingback: so what if my little pot of lentles boils over | Morbid Optimism

  9. Though I don’t believe that knee-jerk empathy can ever be worse than snap judgement, I do understand the struggle that you’re having here. I oftentimes fear that the empathy I have for others is inherently motivated by selfishness– that I either want to try to create a world in my head where people don’t get judged for their shortcomings, thusly freeing me from much of the responsibility for my poor decisions, or that I have a habit of creating a tragic back story for every person I meet because I find that more compelling than the more “mundane” or selfish motivations underlying human mistakes– and that, therefore, my compassion is… I dunno… impure, or tainted… or some other melodramatic self-criticism.

    Gosh, that was a long sentence.

    Still, when it comes down to it, I /do/ believe that everyone does things for a reason, and that they deserve compassion because, oftentimes, the simple weight of human existence can be too much to bear with perfect dignity. I don’t know that this could be considered a /good/ view of the human condition, ’cause, when it comes down to it, I guess, I’m a fatalist. I don’t know if free will exists in any meaningful way. If you rewound to any moment of decision in any person’s life, is there any real chance that the person could turn and choose a different path than what they did originally? Or is the collective momentum of everything– memory, biology, family stretching back generations, physics, all of human and cosmic history– pushing this person in a single, inevitable direction? Oftentimes I don’t think so.

    I think that if, given the chance to relive our lives, we would make the same choices again and again, because every decision we make is motivated by our experiences stretching back to our earliest moments of consciousness, and by our biological makeup. So I usually just feel this sort of profound uselessness in getting up in arms over someone’s actions (I believe action should be taken to protect innocent people from those who are dangerous, of course, so I guess I believe in justice, just without vindictiveness) because, ultimately, while I can recognize someone’s lack of good moral character, I don’t know that I can blame them for being that way.

    Hmm. I didn’t mean to turn this comment into me rambling about patchy philosophy. Sorry 😀 But, seriously, thanks for this post. It was very thought provoking!

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