Empathy Is Incompatible With Shame and Judgment

Posted By Mark Baer || 27-Jan-2015

On December 8, 2014, the Huffington Post published my article titled "The Power of Empathy." Based upon the response I received from that article, it appears to have been my most important article to date. In fact, it was shared by Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), the University of Michigan's Department of Political Science, and Arianna Huffington, just to name a few. In any event, I would like to share the back story that led to my researching the issue and ultimately writing this article.

I had been meaning to better understand the concept of empathy ever since the United States Supreme Court struck down the part of the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 that denied federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples. My interest in the concept had to do with my not understanding how so-called mediators and peacemakers could claim to be empathic people and yet make hateful comments regarding homosexuals and same-sex marriage. I by no means expected all mediators and peacemakers to agree with the Supreme Court's decision; however, one does not have to agree in order to be empathic. What I found confusing was that self-proclaimed empathic people made such hateful comments. I needed to understand whether it was possible for an empathic person to make hateful statements. The reason this was so important to me was conveyed in my article as follows: "The first sentence in Martin Golder's article titled 'The Journey to Empathy' is 'In conflict resolution empathy is a central tool and way of being.'" You see, I am in complete agreement with Mr. Golder. As set forth in "The Power of Empathy," empathy is an emotional skill and an essential part of emotional intelligence.

According to Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW, "empathy and shame are on opposite ends of a continuum. Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging. Shame is how we see ourselves in others' eyes. Shame results in fear, blame (of self or others), and disconnection. Shame tells us that our imperfections make us inadequate. Shame separates and isolates. On the other hand, empathy involves understanding another person's situation from their perspective. As such, you must be able to place yourself in someone else's shoes and feel what they are feeling and without judging them. Empathy moves us to a place of courage and compassion. Through it, we come to realize that our perspective is not the perspective. Empathy is incompatible with shame and judgment. In fact, it is the most powerful antidote to shame." The recipient of shaming comments takes them as being hateful, judgmental, disrespectful, offensive, and insensitive, among other things.

In order to understand my concern, I must share some of the remarks that troubled me. The following comments were posted in the Mediators and Peacemakers LinkedIn Group in response to the Discussion on "DOMA found unconstitutional!" and actually led me to leave that group:

"I have been troubled since the Supreme Court decision. Previously, for many years responses to these discussions were that we could not legislate morality. Apparently, our leading judges think differently now. Have we now moved to the stage in our society where what everyone does is right in his/her own eyes? Does the law, and justice cover this? Let it not be said that I do not have compassion but let it be said that I am aware of the decline of other societies as well as our own." [By calling homosexuals immoral, this person was shaming the members of that community.]

"Know that there are many, indeed a large majority of Americans, who say govt. can't legislate morality, until it is they who wish to legislate their personal agenda. Then, that makes it o.k. Same with most judges these days, most of whom are not fit to wear a judicial robe. Whatever suits the result they want to see personally! Most people contradict themselves constantly." [This is another example of shaming members of the homosexual community by calling them immoral.]

"I'm no tax expert, nor am I married, but I wonder if 'gays' in states that don't allow them to marry are indeed taxed at the same level. I wonder that, because there IS a marriage penalty in taxation that we all know about. If they're not married (like me), then haven't been subjected to that penalty. But this discussion is getting far afield from what the topic of this group is, I know. I just felt it necessary to observe those facts." [I should point out that the facts of the case that led to the Supreme Court's decision on DOMA involved a situation in which a person incurred $363,053 in estate taxes that would not have been incurred, had the federal government recognized her same-sex marriage. Our government imposes many different types of taxes on its citizens. The person who made this comment omitted the discriminatory tax consequence that led the United States Supreme Court to strike down part of DOMA as unconstitutional in order to justify further discrimination against the homosexual community. Such a comment is therefore perceived by members of that community as being hateful.]

"It is my opinion/position (which will probably not be popular), that the decision of the Supreme court was an emotional decision that was made to appease the 3 -5% LGBT population of the United States; it seems to me the court was afraid of hurting people's feelings - this time. I have trouble with any attempt to re-define marriage which has been a standing definition (a man and a woman) for all of history. The SCOTUS decision is legal, but it is not constitutional; and the LGBT relationships are not natural. They will never be natural. It seems to me that on some level the LGBT community is playing pretend, and perhaps SCOTUS is playing along. Again, my opinion/my position." [The person who made this comment was shaming members of the LGBT community because they disregarded the fact that the law was struck down as unconstitutional because it was found to be discriminatory against members of the LGBT community. The United States Supreme Court is the final arbiter of what is and is not constitutional. To say that the Supreme Court's "decision is legal, but is not constitutional" is hateful, among other things. Furthermore, to tell members of that community that their sexual orientation is unnatural is shaming.]

On September 11, 2014, the Huffington Post published my article titled "The Same-Sex Marriage 'Debate' Is Based Upon Ignorance and Inaccurate Information." When I shared that article in the ADR, Conflict Resolution and Mediation Exchange LinkedIn group, it received the following comments from alleged mediators:

"While it is fashionable to take a liberal view - illiberal in its suppression of dissent - there are practical issues about sexual relations which do not change.... Semantically, a unique meaning has been taken away from a great many people. 'Society' didn't think of the mass of folk when it took that distinctive description away, I merely ask what is being offered in its place? Or aren't we even allowed to ask? By the way, I don't deny anyone their dignity - even though you deny me mine and offer nothing to replace it. What we had has been destroyed and deprived of meaning, which was what was intended, no doubt. Envy is a sad and destructive thing.... There have been many happy companionships of brother and sister and friends, close friends. Life went on. Now there is a triumphant minority riding roughshod over a community cowed into submission. Not to be fashionable earns accusations of 'homophobe,' regardless of truth. Best to say nothing now. It merely earns hate.... Not uncomfortable and not noted for lack of empathy, I hope - just despised by an intolerant part of the LGBT community. Let's leave it there. This debate, has a disingenuous agenda of minority power, not equality. Seemingly to respect equality is not enough." [The person who made this comment was shaming the homosexual community because in its decision, the United States Supreme Court stated, "The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity." Meanwhile the person who made this comment claims not to "deny anyone their dignity," but states that by giving the members of the homosexual community their dignity, his dignity was taken away. He shames the homosexual community by disregarding their unequal treatment and reducing them to nothing more than envy. He also disregards their sexual orientation, by comparing their relationships to nothing more than platonic companionship. This person could not have been more shaming of the LGBT community and yet he believes to be an empathic person. Meanwhile, shame and judgment is incompatible with empathy.]

"Mark. I've been reading your diatribes for awhile now not just on this topic but many others and dude, you have issues. How in the world you got into this business is beyond me. Mark complains of a lack of empathy and even in the same paragraph states he doesn't care what others think. Now go digest that hypocritical irrational position. Linked In should boot you out! A psychological mess giving expert advice? That completely explains why smart Californians are moving to Texas and also how Obama was elected two times. Those mean old capitalists!" [Do I even need to explain why this comment was shaming? In any event, the comment I made was, "I couldn't care less whether anyone else approves of same-sex marriage. I could also not care less what people BELIEVE is rooted in some scripture." In any event, another mediator replied to the attack against me as follows: "I thought that a lack of empathy meant that you couldn't share other people's feelings, not that you don't value other people's different opinions. I am trying to reconcile your extreme conclusion that Mark should be excluded from Linked In because you think that his argument is internally inconsistent with your title as 'coach, consultant, mediator.'"]

"What is most astonishing is the seeming success of some people in clothing normal and traditional concept of marriage as 'inequality'. This is a grave misconception. All laws that define marriage as a union between man and woman applies to every member of the society and not for any set or class of individuals. Accordingly, inequality cannot arise therefrom." [The person who made this comment completely disregards the underlying basis for the Supreme Court's decision and thereby shames the homosexual community.]

"In the common law, there is the 'repugnancy test' which qualifies a law to be so call. Now be objective enough to place 'gay marriage' vis-a-vise this qualifying principle and explain where and how it cannot be knocked out." [The person who made this comment shamed the members of the homosexual community by calling them "repugnant."]

Finally, there was the following comment that was made by a so-called mediator in the Southern California Mediation Association LinkedIn group: "It would be better Mark if you preceded such postings with a clear statement regarding your bias when it comes to homosexuality. It would be better to advise readers that your presentation may contain incomplete or false information due to your biases. You do not recuse yourself from offering opinions that harm many. You do not decline to advance your harmful bias. What shall we do about all the young people you harm, often for their entire lives, with your false propaganda? Who helps them? Who deals with the hurt and confusion and malpractice you commit as a result of your blind bias? Who picks up those ruined lives? Time for you to take a sabbatical to reflect on your unethical and biased hate campaign. Mark, yes, unlike others, I call you out on your bias and the falsehoods you put forth. Apparently the truth is irrelevant to you. The issue at hand is falsehoods and the bias of hate." [The person who made this comment is gaslighting me by reversing the situation and making it appear that those who seek to end discrimination are biased, harmful, hateful, and spreading falsehoods. Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse. In any event, his comment is meant to shame me into submission.]

In any event, on the evening of January 23, 2015, I attended the annual San Gabriel Valley Psychological Association's January Jubilee. Several of the members approached me about my article on empathy and mentioned that it was "spot on." However, more importantly, I explained to them that my reasoning for writing the article was my lack of understanding how so many so-called mediators and peacemakers could say and write hateful things about concepts or issues with which they disagreed and yet claim to be empathetic people. As I made very clear in that article, someone may be an empathic person and yet not have a large enough worldview to be able to place themselves in someone else's shoes in order to imagine how they would feel under such circumstances. However, an empathetic person would still not be saying or writing hateful things about such concepts or issues. If they disagree with someone, they would instead express their disagreement in a non-shaming manner. Empathy is essential to conflict resolution and one cannot be a mediator or peacemaker in the true sense of the word, unless one is an empathetic person. In other words, there are many posers in this world and they must be called out. Every single psychologist who heard me make that statement said that I was absolutely correct.

When I mentioned this in a Discussion in Stephen Willis, Ph.D.'s Power through Collaboration LinkedIn group, Dr. Willis made the following comment: "Mark, I am glad to hear that your views on empathy were validated by the psychologists you met at that meeting. It would be worrisome otherwise! Empathy is a key skill that enables people to collaborate more effectively. Many people who want to engage in mediation and conflict resolution do not even consider the importance of empathic abilities and skills for success at such work."

In "The Power of Empathy," I described the consequences to our children and society of not walking our walk and talking our talk - that it is destroying our society. The following quote from Harvard University's Making Caring Common Project's report titled "The Children We Mean to Raise: The Real Messages Adults Are Sending About Values" that was published in 2014 was included in my article: "Any healthy society depends not only on developing in youth the urge and ability to care for others but also on instilling in them other ethical values. Perhaps especially, a civil and just society depends on developing in youth a strong commitment to fairness ... Our research suggests that we are not preparing children to create this kind of society..."

The Declaration of Independence provides in pertinent part as follows: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." I fail to see where it states that these values only apply to males, heterosexuals, Caucasians, Christians, or any other majority group in the United States. I realize that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States are completely different documents; however, that statement from the Declaration of Independence very clearly sets forth the values upon which this country was founded. Anyone who claims to value such things and discriminates against or otherwise attempts to deny such values to others is not walking their walk and talking their talk. "In chapter 5 of Daring Greatly, Brené Brown discusses the importance of minding the gap between our practiced values (what we're actually doing, thinking, and feeling) and our aspirational values (what we want to do, think, and feel)."