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Empathy Disorders

Sick Sad World
Doctors call one of the things I have an "empathy disorder." That has always left me confused and very angry, because it seems to me that I have MORE empathy than neurotypicals. I finally got it through my head that there are two conflicting definitions of empathy. Sometimes, "empathy" means being able to sense other people's emotions without being told about them. That, I definitely can't do. Other times it means caring about other people's feelings and emotions, as in "having empathy for them." And as far as I can tell, when it comes to anybody other than their closest friends and family members, this, most neurotypicals cannot do.

I finally developed my own terms for the two conflicting definitions. I gave in, and let the doctors and the neurotypicals keep their word "empathy" to mean emotional mind-reading. Okay. I have an empathy disorder. What they have? Is a sympathy disorder. I can't tell what strangers are feeling. You can tell what strangers are feeling; you just don't care. Merry fucking Christmas.

I've been meaning to bring this up for a while; I get around to mentioning it now because of how sick to my stomach I feel, how much hatred for humanity is suddenly choking off my Christmas spirit, reading about the abuse the audience heaped on three former homeless teens who told their stories at a public panel, including now successful blogger, columnist, and author Violet Blue: "Booksmith Community Forum on Homelessness, Aug 24, 2009," un-bylined article on "Hope in Haight" blog.

Edited to add:

I find that I have more to say about this; something that's obvious to me but no, it probably isn't obvious to some of you.

There's a guy I used to hang with in college, a fellow CS grad, fairly right wing back then, now some god's own personal fool for every hoax, prank, and propaganda lie that trickles from various hate groups into the Republican commentariat via WorldNewsDaily. (Reporter Dave Neiwert, America's #1 expert on right wing death squads and death-squad wannabes in America, has written extensively about this: they brag to him, openly, that they learned ages ago that they can make up any lie they want, drop it into WND, watch it bubble up to the front page on page views and comments, watch it get picked up by Glen Beck or Bill O'Reilly from there, watch Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity get forced to comment on it when their listeners who overlap ask them about it, and watch it, from them, go straight onto Fox News and into comments by Republicans in power. They say it works every time.) Ever since we reconnected on Facebook, he bounces this crap off of me, and I serve as the fact check, for him, that 30 seconds on Google would be. It's inefficient, but personal. Anyway, I didn't bring this up to dish on the Aryan Nations or WND or Glen Beck or my friend Doc, I brought this up to introduce my friend Doc and explain something related to homelessness that I just had to explain to him.

You see, in the years since we were in college together, my old friend Doc has ended up on the board of directors of a religious charity that serves the homeless. And it occurred to him, the other day, to ask me why it is that no matter how good they make the services they offer the homeless people in his hometown, no matter how string-free they make them, at least half of the homeless people in his town just flatly refuse to have anything to do with them. He wanted to know if, as someone who's been borderline homeless himself and who sees the world through different eyes from him, I could give him any advice on what his church could be doing differently. As I expected, I bumped my head very quickly into the first hurdle: despite years of working with, and on behalf of, the homeless, he had no better idea than most Americans do of how in the hell anybody, whether it's a teenager or a single mother or a combat veteran, ends up homeless. It was the first thing I had to explain to him:

We threw these people away, because nobody wanted them for anything.

And that is the first thing we have to fix. You can't fix anything for a homeless person, whether it's an unparented or mal-parented homeless teenager trying to stay out of sex work or a homeless woman whose children's father left her for a younger model, or couldn't deal with her health issues, or who ran away because he was out of work too long and lost his own self-respect, or who is in jail, or who is dead, and she's spending 140 hours a week trying to keep her children alive without any help, or whether it's a Vietnam War, Gulf War, Yugoslav Civil War, Afghan War, or Iraq War veteran whose physical and mental health problems render him completely unemployable, you can't fix anything for that person if you can't find them someone who wants them to live, who needs them to live, who has a useful purpose for them.

And ever since Ronald Reagan got elected in November of 1980, we have solved every single problem we've had in America, every problem we've had since Lyndon Johnson's hare-brained idea of fighting a deficit-financed entirely optional land war in Asia, every problem we've had since we used up all but the last trickle of our own oil and oil producers discovered that a shattered, used up US Marine Corps could no longer come and take the oil away from them by force, every problem we've had since then, we have solved by human sacrifice: identifying more people to throw away, and throwing those people away; sending them away to sleep in alleys or under overpasses, to live off of stolen food and handouts and scavenged trash, to slowly rot away of completely untreated health problems. Never mind how much needs to get done and isn't getting done; we can't afford the energy cost or raw materials cost to do those things, so we can't afford to hire people to do them, so the people who would have done them are disposable, destined to end up in human landfills

So, if you're one of them, would you please stop depressing the rest of us by reminding us of this? Would you please go find some place to go where none of us can see you as you slowly freeze, starve, and rot away to death? The rest of us, the fortunate ones, have to get on with our lives somehow. That requires some modicum of morale. We do know, on some level, that the first time we slow down, or the first time we get sick, or the first time something goes seriously wrong, or the first time we end up losing someone we were depending on to survive, that we'll be joining you. But if we think about that too much, it'll happen all that much sooner. And you're bringing us down. That's what we, in America, say to them every day with our actions, with the way we complain about and hate on our homeless.

I didn't have a lot of advice for my friend Doc. Knowing he was a conservative, I appealed to Ronald Reagan. One thing Reagan wasn't wrong about is this: "the only effective anti-poverty program is a job." I reminded Doc that I've seen homeless, mentally ill drug addicts instantly and suddenly sober up, and rise to never seen before (albeit temporary) levels of functionality, when they found a kitten that needed to be rescued. I told him about a news story I saw a while back about a halfway house for about to be released, at best partially rehabbed, female drug addicts that more or less accidentally turned those women's lives around when one of the women staying there came up with the idea of volunteering, during the hours they were confined to their group home, to raise puppies that are destined to be trained as service dogs. What do those stories have in common? Somebody needed them. And we all need that. Maslow was wrong, you know: that need to be needed? It's more profound than the need for food and water and sleep; we can live better with occasional deprivation of food, water, and sleep than we can without having anybody need us, or without being able to meet that need. My suggestion to him was to find jobs that his church needed done, that they couldn't afford to do, and to go to those men and ask them, "can you please help us?" Not to bribe them with food and shelter to do it, not as some paternalistic way to rehab them into a "culture of work;" just tell them, honestly and humbly, "we need you for this; if someone doesn't help us, we're in trouble." Watch them rise up.

We won't do that. Oh, Doc might; he's easily fooled, but he's good people, his heart is in the right place. Or he might not; he's only one man, and the social and economic pressures to do nothing effective are overwhelming. We as a country won't. We took the homeless teens and homeless bums of 1932 and turned them into the Greatest Generation of 1944 by needing them that badly; we won't admit that we need the homeless teens and homeless bums of 2011, because we're not scared enough. So they know damned well that we (at least think that) we don't need them. Providing services to them? Is like taking aspirin to deal with the fact that you have a broken leg you can't afford to get set, or an infected tooth you can't afford to get pulled; it may make life momentarily better, but it doesn't stop the problem from getting worse. I hate painkillers for just that reason; they remind me that I can't get whatever it is that's broken, that's sick, that hurts, I can't get it fixed. I hate homeless services, whether government or private charity, the same way.

And they say I have an empathy disorder.

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( 24 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
stellatangdele
Dec. 22nd, 2011 03:02 am (UTC)
I followed the link and it said it didn't exist. Could it be a slightly different link?
bradhicks
Dec. 22nd, 2011 06:32 am (UTC)
thesecondcircle
Dec. 20th, 2011 11:08 pm (UTC)
I don't disagree with anything you say here about homelessness. However I must comment on this:

"I can't tell what strangers are feeling. You can tell what strangers are feeling; you just don't care."

If you could tell what strangers were feeling, you'd realize that caring about all of them is the short road to insanity. If you can tell what people are feeling just by seeing them on the news or on the street or in your imagination, the weight of that will just crush you to pulp if you don't put up some barriers. I cried when I chose a gift tag at work and it was a little 6-year-old girl who wanted an etch-a-sketch for Christmas. And that was one of a stack in my office, one of many stacks across the city, one of millions of stacks across the country... and these are the people who are getting help and who can ask or who have someone to ask for them. Just thinking about it makes it hard for me to breathe.

I have to admit the thought occurred to me that, from what you've said about how much things affect you in a physical, visceral way, you just care too much (or maybe I should say more than a person can handle). Maybe not parsing the emotions of strangers is just your brain's alternate way of coping with that. It's just the reverse of how I cope...
jonathankorman
Dec. 20th, 2011 11:21 pm (UTC)
If you could tell what strangers were feeling, you'd realize that caring about all of them is the short road to insanity.

Agreed. I have given that very pointa good deal of thought apropos of Brad's original point.
magentamn
Dec. 20th, 2011 11:51 pm (UTC)
Bravo - you are quite correct about homelessness, and near homelessness. And that the society considers most of us disposable.

The doctors are full of it. No one can tell what other people are feeling on a reliable basis. (There are exceptions - my mother could always tell when I'd snitched a cookie.) What we do is try to put ourselves in another person's "shoes". But that works very badly, as a whole, because they could look at my situation and know what *they* would want in that situation but not what *I* would actually want. Unless I tell them, in which case it isn't telepathy or empathy but ordinary communication.
catsidhe
Dec. 20th, 2011 11:53 pm (UTC)
jonathankorman
Dec. 21st, 2011 12:26 am (UTC)
when it comes to anybody other than their closest friends and family members, this, most neurotypicals cannot do

It's my understanding that I'm more neurotypical than you are, but I'm far enough off the norm that I've given this a lot of thought. The thing that neurotypicals “cannot” do (or rather, often do poorly) is a thing I tend to call “moral imagination,” and I suspect that the capacity for “empathy” either distracts from moral imagination or prevents folks from feeling that they need to cultivate it. Moral imagination is the capacity to reason your way into sympathy for other people and to take it just as seriously as the viscerally personal.

I read an article about Bill Gates' charities that talked about how distinctively geeky they were. Bill Gates doesn't want a monthly photograph of the cute kid in Africa he sponsored so he can feel good; he wants to know that he got as much mileage as he could out of a billion dollars, so he spends on unglamorous stuff like mosquito netting to prevent malaria. The cost/benefit analysis doesn't turn him off, it does the opposite.

I cannot resist observing that a lack of moral imagination seems highly correlated with political conservatism in my experience.

identifying more people to throw away, and throwing those people away

Spot on. I think of David “The Wire” Simon saying:
These really are the excess people in America. Our economy doesn’t need them—we don’t need 10 or 15 percent of our population. And certainly the ones who are undereducated, who have been ill-served by the inner-city school system, who have been unprepared for the technocracy of the modern economy, we pretend to need them. We pretend to educate the kids. We pretend that we’re actually including them in the American ideal, but we’re not. And they’re not foolish. They get it.
It's cold, it's evil, and it scares the heck out of me.

somebody needed them

I am reminded of something I was told about the Delancey Street Foundation, which runs several successful businesses staffed entirely with ex-convicts. Apparently on Day One, someone comes to you and says, “I'm making you responsible for the tables being set. Silverware is here, glasses are there, plates are over here. Let me know if you need anything.” You get one responsibility, but you are made actually responsible for it. On Day Two, someone says to you, “You're now responsible for the tables being set and the floors being swept. You won't have time to do both, so give Frank over there responsibility for setting the tables; he's new today.”

I was weirdly reminded of Joe Mantegna's character in House of Games when I heard that. “Is it called a ‘confidence game’ because I ask for your confidence? No. It's because I give you my confidence.”
bradhicks
Dec. 21st, 2011 01:08 am (UTC)
Thank you VERY much for that David Simon interview. I don't get pay cable, and some days I despair that anybody still in America "gets" what is going on.
jonathankorman
Dec. 21st, 2011 01:15 am (UTC)
You can find quite a few interviews with Simon on the web, and they're all excellent.

Does your lack of cable mean that you've not seen The Wire? Because in addition to it being about this very problem, and how it springs from institutional failure in the US, it is so cunningly crafted and hugely entertaining that it makes me embarrassed to have ever said I liked other TV shows.
pope_guilty
Jan. 7th, 2012 12:34 pm (UTC)
We actually do "need" that 10-15% of people. Full employment scares the shit out of/infuriates the wealthy because a population without a permanent underclass of desperate, struggling people is a population that has to be persuaded to work for you- you can't just say "minimum wage in exchange for destroying your body and soul" and watch the applications come in. A degraded, desperate underclass is absolutely crucial for the practice of capitalism as it exists in the US, and has been for some time; there's a reason U3 and not U6 is the "official" unemployment figure.
jonathankorman
Jan. 7th, 2012 04:05 pm (UTC)
Yep.
(Deleted comment)
(Deleted comment)
(Deleted comment)
pazi_ashfeather
Dec. 21st, 2011 05:30 pm (UTC)
I'm autistic (among other things) and it's precisely the opposite of what you suggest -- I can perceive people's emotions and affect especially well, so much so it's overwhelming. I'm not always right, but am most of the time. The problem is I don't know how to react, because a significant portion of NT-expected "displayed-empathy" is just completely non-intuitive to me. I perceive it, I care, but showing it is tricky.
(Deleted comment)
pazi_ashfeather
Dec. 21st, 2011 09:52 pm (UTC)
That would in fact be my point -- you're overreaching when you say:

People with ASDs have a deficit in the first component, not the second.

pazi_ashfeather
Dec. 21st, 2011 05:33 pm (UTC)
(Also, it's just plain tricky to handle it gracefully in realtime even when I have some idea of what scripted reaction might be appropriate -- since I seem to experience a lot of "emotional contagion", empathy is *distracting* and often uncomfortable.)
mikazo
Dec. 21st, 2011 03:52 am (UTC)
Do you feel it is possible that you tend to overdo it? It is one thing to be aware of the shadows in the world and it is another to perpetually dwell on them and be angry all the time. Strangely enough you may be more effective at bringing light to these issues if you are not perpetually unhappy because of them.
channelpenguin
Dec. 21st, 2011 10:10 am (UTC)
"someone who has the ability to think about horrible things clearly. A lot of NTs don't want to think about those things or deal with those people because they can't deal with the feelings it evokes. It's too uncomfortable. A lot of NTs also don't have an ability to think that sort of situation through logically because they rely on their feelings, not their logic, and so if a situation makes them uncomfortable they run away from it and never deal"

wow, this really resonates. THIS is what is different about me to most people, what they don't 'get' about me....

But, but, but..... I am hugely emotionally empathetic (particularly to pain) on a one-on-one, very-close-physical-proximity basis. But that's an animal thing? [see the recent rat-in-a-box experiment writeup].

I'm not 'diagnosed' anything but I wouldn't be at all surprised if I was considered to be a bit off-centre towards Asperger's (computer geek, low frustration threshold, considered to be emotionally detached, a bit literal-minded)


anadamous
Dec. 21st, 2011 10:31 pm (UTC)
1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xEUh4FZIf8E

2. I absolutely, profoundly agree with your perception that making people feel needed, giving them do-able responsibilities or jobs, is essential to helping them to be interested in taking care of themselves.
aries_jordan
Dec. 22nd, 2011 04:14 am (UTC)
Wow. This is an eye-opener.
kimchalister
Dec. 22nd, 2011 11:04 pm (UTC)
"I can't tell what strangers are feeling. You can tell what strangers are feeling; you just don't care."

I don't think that's true of all of us. (Though it may be a stretch to include myself in the category of neurotypical.)
As someone said, there seems to be more empathy in liberals than in conservatives -- probably related to the liberal belief that people are basically good versus the conservative belief that people are basically bad.
interactiveleaf
Mar. 22nd, 2012 09:24 am (UTC)
the liberal belief that people are basically good versus the conservative belief that people are basically bad.

Jesus. Fucking. Christ.

Get a grip. What bullshit.
Don Gisselbeck
Dec. 26th, 2011 05:34 am (UTC)
The modern Republican motto is "If you can't compete, starve".
(Anonymous)
Dec. 26th, 2011 07:47 pm (UTC)
further resource about empathy and compassion.
May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.
http://CultureOfEmpathy.com

Also, I invite you to post a link to your article about empathy to our Empathy Center Facebook page.
http://Facebook.com/EmpathyCenter
pingback_bot
Jan. 1st, 2012 05:59 am (UTC)
And that's a wrap, I guess - 16-31 December 02011
User silveradept referenced to your post from And that's a wrap, I guess - 16-31 December 02011 saying: [...] the abused, and those that the economy and the country seem to believe are excess or useless people [...]
darksumomo
Mar. 22nd, 2013 02:15 am (UTC)
And ever since Ronald Reagan got elected in November of 1980, we have solved every single problem we've had in America, every problem we've had since Lyndon Johnson's hare-brained idea of fighting a deficit-financed entirely optional land war in Asia, every problem we've had since we used up all but the last trickle of our own oil and oil producers discovered that a shattered, used up US Marine Corps could no longer come and take the oil away from them by force, every problem we've had since then, we have solved by human sacrifice: identifying more people to throw away, and throwing those people away; sending them away to sleep in alleys or under overpasses, to live off of stolen food and handouts and scavenged trash, to slowly rot away of completely untreated health problems. Never mind how much needs to get done and isn't getting done; we can't afford the energy cost or raw materials cost to do those things, so we can't afford to hire people to do them, so the people who would have done them are disposable, destined to end up in human landfills.

You forgot one other "human landfill"--prison. The U.S. has 4% of the world's population, but 25% of the world's prisoners. We're ahead of both China and Russia.
( 24 comments — Leave a comment )

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