Empathy through Anthropology

I was raised by assholes.

When you call someone an asshole it is because they have demonstrated to you through their behavior that they lack empathy. They’re rude, entitled, inconsiderate, etc.

Some examples:

  • When it was -5 [not that cold in Montana] and snowing, my mother came to pick up my toddler son from my house to take him to hers. She busted a u-turn, parked in the middle of the road, double parking my neighbor’s car, and left her car running. Then she came into my house – took off her boots and coat – and started talking to me as I got my son’s things together to go to her house. When I said, “mom, you cannot leave your car like that,” she said, “just chill. It doesn’t matter. I don’t want the car to get cold.” She lived exactly one block away from my house at the time.
  • When I was about 8 my father was driving my brother [6] and me somewhere on a rural road in his busted-ass car. We passed by a fat [I’m saying “fat” here out of an effort to be descriptive and not anything else], middle aged woman at her mailbox in a white house dress that had large, black flowers on it. And my dad says – to his children – “look there’s a cow checking the mail!” Then he laughed and laughed, and being little assholes we also laughed.
A tall man in a sling stands next to a woman holding a baby
Baby me and some assholes. I guarantee my dad’s shirt says something vaguely offensive under that sling.

I was raised by people like that. I understand why they are assholes [I’m sure I will explain this more in other places] and I love them, but that does not make them not assholes.

When you are young, your parents make the universe for you out of the things that they believe are true. So, it is not hard to understand how assholedness is perpetuated. Adult parent assholes create an environment where assholing is the norm and they stamp out non-asshole traits. They also confuse the hell out of you when you behave toward them with these asshole tendencies [how they have indoctrinated you] and they have the nerve to get indignant about it. Then you are struck by the cognitive dissonance that is the water you have been swimming in your entire life.

Imagine seventeen-year-old me … frizzy hair, uncoolest poor kid jeans, few friends who don’t hang out with me because of my ability to write big during math tests, terrible dancer, most incredible soprano of my senior class. I got the lead part in the high school musical, Oklahoma! I was Laurey. It was the very best thing that could possibly have ever happened to me in a million years. It’s been 20 years and I am still proud of me on that day.

Now imagine my mom … recently divorced for the second time, having flashbacks from past abuse, not sleeping, clinically depressed, broke to the point of having to declare bankruptcy, with the best idea to make money ever: telling her teenaged daughter with no friends and no extra-curricular activities to get an after school job.

After telling me that he finances were in a bad way, mother said to me, “I need you to quit the play and get a job.”

And I said back to her, “I won’t do it. It’s not fair for you to ask me. This is the most important thing to ever happen to me. It’s not my fault you are shitty with money. I am doing this play and you can’t make me quit.”

[I have highlighted the actual part of my response that is the asshole part even though it remains strictly true because the most defining characteristic of an asshole is a person who says a true thing to be mean and then resorts to statements like, “I’m just telling the truth, don’t be so sensitive.” As for the unbold part, that shit is legit and I stand by it].

So my mother says, crying by now, “you have no empathy. You’re heartless and uncaring and selfish. Just like your father!”

At this something snapped on the inside. I stood up from my futon, attaining the hard won 5 foot 7 inches of a girl who hit puberty almost 5 years after her peer group, and I slapped my mother – the woman who gave me life – full in the face. Her driver’s license says she is 5’3″ [and it’s lying]. I scared the shit out of her [and we should not forget that she really does have a history of abuse so this was a terrible thing to have done, really, no matter that she had also hit me when I was a defenseless child].

So she called the cops on me.

She didn’t actually press charges. Mostly I think she was trying to scare and shame me. I had to call my dad while the cops where there because they didn’t want me to stay in the house, because I was being so violent and all and my mother felt unsafe. After I told him what happened he said, “what do you want me to do about it?” Not in an unfeeling way, but in a man-baby sort of way. Like, “no really, minor child, what do you want me, adult man, to do about it?” So I replied, “I need to stay at your house for a few days.” He equivocated, but eventually agreed that it made the most sense and gave in.

Here is what I learned from this encounter: I have no empathy. I am a bad person.

The important nugget is that, despite everything my parents had taught me about how to treat other people, it was now clear [because my mother, who made the universe, said so] that I was to be distinguished among all our family as lacking empathy [regardless of the non-empathic traits exhibited by them]. Though this was something I didn’t know until this moment I was supposed to have, I needed it and was sorely deficient.

Because I am nothing if not diligent, I really threw myself into study for the acquisition of empathy over the next few years because I decided [for many reasons] to major in Anthropology. The very best thing to be said about a BA in Anthropology is that it is a four year emersion in radical empathy.

This is not your grandmother’s deeply flawed and unapologetically racist anthropology. No, no. This is put yourself into the headspace of tribal warlords practicing genital mutilation on pre-pubescent girls and try to understand their cultural perspective anthropology.

When I was 21 [it was not a very good year] I took a course called Phenomenology of the Holocaust. Phenomenology [you can read about it, but maybe don’t?] is a method by which one suspends all judgment and explores/embodies the first person perspective of others as a means to understand their culture and society. Thinking back on this time in my life, I understand that the main pitfall of phenomenology is that it easily succumbs to E.E. Evans-Pritchards “if I were a horse…” fallacy. Which is to say one can never entirely imagine the perspective of a horse because one will always be a human [man] imagining oneself as a horse. The “if I were a horse…” fallacy is why we no longer like it when white men of European dissent write stories with black, female and/or otherly intersectional persons from themselves as protagonists: we don’t find their trying on of that perspective credible. We assume that they are unable to be not themselves while they are imagining being someone else.

In my graduate seminar on Phenomenology of the Holocaust, we were not truly imagining ourselves as SS officers, or Nazi guards just doing their jobs, or terrified Jewish prisoners interned in Birkenau awaiting our inevitable yet capricious deaths. But I challenge you to try it for an entire semester and not a) have horrific nightmares, and b) learn something ultimately true about the human condition.

handwritten notes dated 2/2/05 describing response to Remnants of Auschwitz and Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, with stream of consciousness by author
One page of notes from Phenomenology of the Holocaust beginning with some reflections on Giorgio Agamben’s Remnants of Auschwitz. This still means something to me – wild – streams of consciousness are so fascinating, “inhumanity is a zone of humanity”

I got a crash course in debilitating empathy and feel ultimately grateful for the experience. It unlocked a door to the unifying humanness of emotion and shattered the cool detachment and desensitization of living in a fundamentally violent culture while being raised by assholes. The list of films that I can no longer watch and books I cannot read because the feeling of other people’s pain is too overwhelming is now much longer than I could ever have imagined.

Empathy is a human capacity that exists innately in all of us, but it needs cultivation. Being raised by assholes, oddly, gives me a bizarre window into the motivations of the global asshole class as exemplified by the maskless man I observed in the grocery store a few weeks ago wearing a shirt that said, “my favorite F word is Freedom.” I see you, master asshole, and I understand your greatest pain, forgive me if I still want to punch you in the face as I feel the full force of your lack of empathy for others.

Oddly my mother does not remember ever screaming at me about how I had no empathy [this is not odd]. She stops short of telling me that I do have empathy however, but because I have willingly paid my therapist enough money to send her children to college, I can see that I do have it and can be grateful for the unintended call to seek it out.

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