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Jim Infantino

Inverted Empathy

ancient castle with high walls

"The higher we build the wall, the more the enemy seems everywhere." - me

The following is a model. That means it is a way of thinking about a situation, but it is purely an idea, tested only logically. If it works as a model, it may be useful. If not, it can be discarded. Philosophy works this way. Models.

More on models later.

The term "Inverted Empathy" is imperfect. I welcome your ideas. Here is how it works:

  1. Bob has done Dan a serious wrong. Dan may or may not be aware of this.
  2. Bob uses his natural empathic abilities to imagine how he would feel if the same wrong were done to him by Dan.
  3. Bob models his own feelings in this imaginary situation and discovers he would be furious and would be motivated to enact violent revenge against Dan.
  4. Bob begins to fear Dan and plans to defend himself against an attack by Dan, not in a model, but in real life.
  5. Optional step: Bob takes preemptive steps against Dan to keep himself safe.

Inverted Empathy works on multiple levels. It can, of course, occur within individuals for small slights or serious wrongs. It can also happen on a cultural/societal level where wrongs have been done by and to groups of people.

Imagine situations of inverted empathy for the following dynamics:

  • gender relations: male/female, straight/lgbtq, cys/trans
  • repeated bullying situations in schools
  • racial relations
  • economic inequality
  • politics
  • international relations

Inverted Empathy offers a possible answer to the question:

"Why are empowered groups or individuals often vengeful toward less empowered groups or individuals?"

In the model of inverted empathy, the answer is that these situations are caused by our natural ability to empathize with others, not our ability to objectify others or dehumanize them.

In the United States, we can find many such instances of inverted empathy. The attitude of European descended citizens toward the descendants of African slaves, for example, can work along the same lines as Bob an Dan above.

  1. Bob, who is white becomes aware of the long history of unjust white violence towards African Americans.
  2. Bob, using his natural empathy, imagines himself in the position of the descendant of a family of slaves in America.
  3. Bob models his feelings based on this empathic model and discovers deep rage and feelings of injustice against himself in this imaginary situation.
  4. Bob begins to fear African Americans and plans to defend himself against them, possibly taking offensive measures.

It is important to point out that Bob has become fearful here, not because of any legitimate proof of danger to himself, but purely based on the models he has created in his head because of this inverted empathy. He may attempt to seek proof to back up the fears he has generated, and will probably find something to back his model up. Perhaps he will find other people who corroborate his fear based on their own models. This feeds a confirmation bias and deepens his fears.

Does the model of Inverted Empathy work:

  • when thinking of the attitudes earlier immigrants to the US toward later immigrants to the US?
  • when thinking of attitudes of some men toward women?
  • with regards the attitudes of some wealthy or privileged groups toward the poor or less privileged?

The model of inverted empathy does not rely on ideas of weaker or stronger, or traditional socio-economic or cultural/colonial power models.

There is hope in this model, insofar as it works only if we assume that almost all people are naturally empathic, and that empathy causes them to behave in ways that are harmful to another out of fear.

Like all philosophical models, this needs testing and may be able to be done so scientifically. Before that is done, it should be tried and argued and discussed. Please let me know what you think.


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