Empathy vs. Sympathy

November 3, 2012

The anthropologist from Mars, like any good ethnographer, is a student of gendered pronoun conventions and the sexual polity of dinner at home, abroad. The Raw and the Cooked, From Honey to Ashes, and Man, Snake, Apple are all at home in one tradition, the literary one in which fear of cannibalism never evaporates, because the imagination never loses interest.

jungle, a tall tree falling eternally.
.. the rapidizing of leaves, stirred birds,
.. before & after, a new tree
falls within .. being done,
a limb falling.

– Arthur Yap

Is it empathy or lack of sympathy that moves a missionary in New Zealand to write home in a drunken bemusement intended to sound correctly appalled about the local cooking of unwanted children of prostitution in the colonies?

The cauldron size and mode of transit are vividly described, but the moral seriousness of the situation and its scope of ironies are lost on the too easily startled reader. Typical of a writer not to know the audience better, and leave off where only a historiographer could make something of the correspondence, far away in the grand scheme of eventuality.

In common usage, empathy and sympathy overlap in meaning.


But when used together to emphasize a distinction between two concepts, empathy is more often used to mean the ability to ascertain how others feel or an instance of understanding that cognitively, and sympathy is distinguished as emotional responsiveness to the perceived feelings of others.

This seems clear and useful as a distinction worth knowing how to make as needed. Except that common usage is known only to actual conversation and writing, and here there is motive and opportunity to blur many distinctions that make for incongruous yet deceptively similar synonyms. Like the image as metaphor, a much abused synonym evades better judgment and inflects understanding through habitual inattention to the difference.

Early in a career publishing run-on aphorisms as philosophy, Bertrand Russell wrote an enthusiastic paper on metaphysics to repudiate the philosophies inspired by Hegel, under the title giving away his thesis, “Seems, madam? Nay, it is.”

The essay was short, but reasserted for the naïve readers of quantum physics press releases that the world of appearances is as good as real in practice, and any reality hiding behind those appearances is of practical irrelevance (outside the physics laboratory). It did not take that long for him to develop a fascination with Wittgenstein’s Tractacus, and impose admiration for pure mathematics on those of his readers interested in philosophy from someone who makes a point of protesting ignorance of aesthetics.

But his philosophy of science at least retained enough pragmatism not to confuse the uses of atomic physics with skepticism about what occurs when an unstoppable force meets and immovable object, given that the spaces between the subatomic particles constituting participants in a collision are greater than the size of those particles that give them substance.


A bit more than a century later, world anthropologies would compare notes, collate principles suited for theory, and announce in uncompromising prose that the famous embarrassments raised by early encounters between Enlightenment positivism and social policy could not be cited as a basis for relativism about social justice or the day to day applications of the law.

They had found a means of situating cultural cognition glossaries within a context that appeals to the science instincts of the reader for what is self-evident.

Multicultural conceptions admit the diversity of cultures, underscore their differences, and propose relativist policies of respect that often reinforce segregation. Dissimilarly, interculturality refers to confrontation and entanglement, to what happens when groups establish relationships and exchanges. .. multiculturalism supposes acceptance of what is heterogenous; interculturality implies that those who are different are what they are in relations of negotiations, conflicts and reciprocal loans.

– Néstor García Canclini

Anthropologists had come to accept that it is their lot to struggle with the “what for” of their work, to be “politically oriented” rather than attempt irrelevance in the cataloguing of cultural perspectives or the mapping of limitations on validity wherever distinctive regimes are found in the social construction of truth.

The “self vs. other” schematic for existential angst, using exotic human geography as a sheet on which to project one’s surreal private vocabulary of archetypes, was an accomplished fact in genre writing. It was time to try new things.

But cruelty and curiosity remained at the front of the stage, looking for new tropes to inhabit, and more intimate polities of othering began to feel not only salient, but natural – as if the Victorian quest for sensible public health administration and egalitarian standards of safety and wellness within private households had been a poor choice of direction for idealism.


Dread fascination attends more closely than critical reason when a reader comes across a taxonomy of sanctions from the scholarship of “reactions to wrongdoing” in social order and private redress:

S-1. Inflicting bodily harm
1.1 Put to death
1.2 Corporal punishment (from pain to inflicted impairments, ranging from caning to amputation)
S-2. Imprisoning and detaining
S-3. Discharging and expelling
3.1 Dismissal
3.2 Suspension
3.3 Banishment
3.4 Ostracism
3.5 Excommunication
3.6 Transfer (possibly with demotion)
S-4. Restricting or altering rights, privileges or opportunities
4.1 Movement limitations
4.2 Social contact restrictions
4.3 Activity limitations
4.4 Demotion with loss of status and benefits
4.5 False promotion (away from responsibilities and effective power)
4.6 Assignment bypass (retaining title but not the responsibilities)
4.7 Promotion denial
4.8 Boycott
S-5. Censuring and exposing
5.1 Private censure
5.2 Limited exposure
5.3 Public exposure
S-6. Confiscating or damaging possessions
S-7. Forced labor
S-8. Threatening and warning
S-9. Imposing adverse appraisals

No matter how sternly we disapprove of domestic violence and other resting states of poverty, we also naturalize institutional violence in our built environments of origin, when we come across an instance first hand. This manifestation of distaste for the burdens of others can be framed more nicely as “boundaries issues” that are also about the well-being of helping professionals themselves, conserving the resources of their person to carry on.

In those administrative uniforms the distaste for feeling needed on short notice is likely to survive, even if the traditionally gendered tropes in everyday corruption’s informal norms are going out of style themselves. Property law may not always distort the implementation of laws against simple assault in just the ways it does now, but something will.

And for now, patronage politics doesn’t date to an idyllic past where justice was swifter than hypocrisy and marriage was profound for its uncertainties, an uneasy metaphor for taking and trading. We still moon over make-believe love suicides, dramas that forgive by redeeming the metaphors of rape and adultery for compact violation, in a world of law that outlaws duels.

Something always does impede the law, between motive and the sensual polity of distractedness at work among impartial public servants, who wince at being compared to doctors and lawyers, because it’s fair. And their concerns going about triage are not so different from anyone else’s except in routine intensity. Clinical practitioners must deal with exhausting levels of exposure to the pain of others, an extreme case of the generic problem with sympathy in an age of information overload.

Judges have a sense of humor about holding court, day in and day out, each time a fresh take on the same good joke. As Holocaust survivor Primo Levi put it, “If we were able to suffer the sufferings of everyone, we could not live. … there remains in the best of cases only the sporadic pity addressed to the single individual … within the reach of our providentially myopic senses.”

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