Radical Empathy

Reserving judgment and trying harder to understand.

Many years ago, I was robbed at gunpoint while working at an economic and mechanical wasteland called Classic Car Wash in Nowhere, USA. The whole ordeal lasted maybe five to 10 minutes. The gunman was both aggressive and considerate. For example, he'd tied my hands behind my back with a zip tie, but before leaving he put a razor blade in one of my hands and my cell phone in the other and told me to count to 20 before calling the police. Still in shock, I guess, I said, "I'm not even going to call the police. Just go." Then he insisted that I call the police. He even said, "If you don't call the police, they're going to think you did this." Long story short: I called the police, they came to the car wash, I told them what happened, they brought me to the station, they accused me of staging the robbery so I could make off with the money.

Thus began a tense few days or weeks that I now get to be grateful for, in part because the accusations eventually went away, and in part because the one-two punch of it all left a lasting impression.

I was rattled by the experience of having a gun in my face and at my back. I was just as rattled by the experience of, immediately after having the gun pointed at me, having false accusations leveled at me. I felt different. Music sounded different. Loud sounds suddenly spooked me. I felt small and afraid and afraid that people, including me, would see that I felt small and afraid. And because I tried to hide it, I also felt like a fraud. A fraud with no agency. And I didn't really have the tools then to do anything about it, to make sense of it, to fix it. All I knew how to do at the time was follow my thoughts as though they were truths. And those thoughts weren't going anywhere good.

That said, I think this is one of the pivotal moments that led me, very slowly, to start questioning my thoughts. After all, thoughts are what misled the police. And they were wrong. And I knew that they were wrong. But they didn't have the empirical evidence that I did. They only had their misleading thoughts and imaginations. And once they mistook those to be truths, everything else fed their confirmation bias.

Fast-forward maybe 10 years. It's 2011, and I'm a month or two into an international journalism program in London. One of the big international stories in the news then was the ongoing appeal of Raffaele Sollecito and Amanda Knox, both of whom, you might recall, had been convicted in 2009 of the murder of Meredith Kercher.

Just before the start of class one day, another student asked me what I thought about Knox and her case. Because we were studying journalism, I was embarrassed to admit that I hadn't been following the story that closely, and that I didn't have a strong opinion about Knox or her case. She then responded with her thoughts about how Knox was clearly guilty, and how all one had to do was look into her eyes to see that.

The night that I was accused of robbing myself was very cold. It was the dead of winter and I was wearing layer upon layer of thick, grimy work clothes. I had long hair, a thick beard, and the same distaste for authority I have today. That's not to say I wasn't polite to the police. I was, right up until they made their accusation. But at one point before they did that, when I was still being polite, they started asking me personal questions about things not directly related to the robbery. Fool that I was and still am, I'd yet to put two and two together. They asked me, for example, where I went to high school, what I thought about it, and who my favorite teachers were. And I answered honestly: Lockport Township High School. I hated it. I didn't have any favorite teachers because I didn't particularly care for any of them. They nodded silently. Some minutes later, it all became very clear to me. I was doing a great job of verifying the story in their minds. The story of who I really was and what I'd really just done.

As you've probably guessed, these are a few of the things that came to mind when I heard my fellow journalism student's thoughts about Knox, which were based to some extent on Knox's eyes. So I told this student my story about the car wash. I explained how it's made me more inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt, and less inclined to count appearance and dubious narratives (including the ones that form in my head) as evidence. She was unmoved by this. And I'm not knocking her for that. I'm also not saying with stank, "This is a person some of you are now getting your news from." (That part’s factually true, but it's not a criticism; she was, and I imagine still is, a smart and determined person who just happened to say something I disagree with; and I probably said hundreds of things in that year alone that I would now disagree with, too.) I'm just saying that this is a person. And this is how natural selection has conditioned people to think. And I get it. Because #MeToo. I, too, am a victim of the mind's mental harassment and assault. We all are. And knowing about your mental assailants doesn't eliminate them. Knowing about them only helps you to avoid them more often than not knowing about them would. To be clear, that's a big "only." It's an important only. But it's also a necessary only. Because knowing your mind can spur you to do something misguided doesn't guarantee that you won't still do it. It only puts the odds in your favor.

While reading the news the past few weeks, the name Amanda Knox kept popping up. Once again, I didn't pay much attention to the stories I saw about her. But when I saw a story in The Atlantic written by her, my interest grew. So I bookmarked the piece. I finally got around to reading it the other day, and I was impressed.

While my experience with the police all those years ago was, at most, less than a thousandth of a percent as intense and traumatic as I imagine Knox's was, and while I would a hundred percent never aim to equate or even compare the two, they are oddly connected in my mind for the reasons noted above. And the piece she wrote drew another thread through that connection, one inexorably connected to my experiences at the car wash and the police station, but one that also very much speaks to some of my more recent experiences navigating our often unforgiving and overly judgmental times and minds, and one that I think speaks compellingly to those times and minds more generally. It illuminated how inseparable a ~20-year-old experience is from the ways I view and process things today, and the ways I try to view and process things today (they're not always the same). I told you at the top that I'm now grateful for the experience. And I meant it. And the rest of what I've been writing here, I hope, offers some explanation why. I just want to get better at avoiding my mental assailants, and I just want as many people as possible to get better at it with me. Because that's the only way that all the other stuff can start to get better. It's only the exact way to the promised land that we can't seem to stop fighting about.

I recommend reading the full Knox piece. But I'm going to share a few sentences from it here. I must warn you, though, that these sentences comprise the bulk of Knox's final two paragraphs. So consider this a spoiler alert, and a suggestion that you click this link and read the whole thing rather than just the excerpt below, which I am leaving here as both an anchor and a buttress, for you and for me and for all.

For four years, I lived alongside women actually guilty of crimes ranging from petty theft to filicide. And let me tell you, playing cards with a drug dealer and being taught to roll out pizza dough with a broomstick by a mafiosa certainly puts things in a new perspective—one that doesn’t excuse people’s crimes, but puts them into context. I came to recognize the humanity in my fellow inmates, imperfect people whom society had written off as worse than worthless, or as monsters. Those same judgments were, and still are, hurled at me, despite my innocence.

All of this has made me extremely skeptical of those who easily pass judgment. It has made me allergic to the impulse to flatten others into cardboard, to erase their human complexity, to rage against things about which I know only a snippet. Judgment only gets in the way of understanding. Refraining from judgment has become a way of life for me. Call it radical empathy, or extreme benefit of the doubt. I know how wrong people were about me, and I don’t ever want to be that wrong about another person. The world is not filled with monsters and heroes; it’s filled with people, and people are extraordinarily complex.

The "radical" part of radical empathy, as I define it, involves directing your empathy at someone you fundamentally disagree with or are inclined to think of as evil, contemptible, deplorable, immoral, etc. Everything else is just standard empathy. And it's easy to feel it for the people we already see as "victims" or "equals." The majority of us, I think, do that automatically. It's much harder to do it for the "monsters" and "villains." And dare I say it's sometimes just as hard, if not harder, to do it for the "heroes." Because the lights we shine on their virtues reflect back on our spots and blemishes and mistakes. And we don't like that. It doesn't feel good. And our feelings inform our thoughts. And our thoughts inform our feelings. And somewhere in this cycle, our worst fictions are born.

Radical empathy is also not a demand, or even a call, for others to empathize with you. That’s not how it works. That’s backward. Forward is going inside yourself, finding some empathy, then applying it radically to the things you send back out. That’s how it works. Even if you are only looking for others to empathize with you—that’s still how it works. It starts with your empathy, not your demands.

Real-deal radical empathy comes from going against the grain of our conditioning. It comes from being suspicious of the stories we tell ourselves to justify the thoughts and feelings and actions that inspired them. It comes from genuinely trying to understand and relate to a person or position seemingly at odds with us and our own. It comes from finding the common ground that brings us back to being just people. "Extraordinarily complex" people.