Empathy and Sympathy: What’s What and Who Deserves It

In this week’s episode of “my boyfriend and I had an interesting discussion and now I will use my online platform to tell him why he’s wrong”, we come to the case of Snape (sorry Jacob, it really just means I find your ideas engaging enough that I want to write about them).

The essence of the question is whether Snape is a sympathetic character or not. I’m going to start with some nitpicky details about empathy and sympathy, feeling bad for someone, condoning actions, and understanding reasons. Because these are all very relevant to why Snape is such a divisive character and how we as human beings can both hold people responsible for bad actions while simultaneously understanding in a deep way why they engage in such actions.

First, the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is about feeling compassion for someone, or commiserating when they feel down. It often can have an element of pity in it, but it’s generally the feeling you get towards people when you haven’t experienced the same things that they have. Empathy on the other hand is to put yourself in their shoes and feel what they’re feeling. Now some definitions specify that it also includes compassion, but it seems entirely possible to me to be able to put yourself into someone else’s shoes, feel what they’re feeling, and still be frustrated, angry, or otherwise not compassionate towards that person.

As an example, I can certainly empathize with people who are depressed. I can feel their feelings fairly easily. But depending on their actions, it’s also very easy for me to be angry at how they’re behaving, or feel as if they’ve made bad decisions that are the cause of some of their problems. It’s especially possible for me to understand someone’s emotions and still think that they’ve behaved abominably (for example threatening suicide to keep a loved one close, or blaming someone else for their depression). I’m uncertain whether that means I feel compassion for them, whether I feel bad for that person. I can certainly feel sad for the circumstances that hurt them, or for the brain that makes it hard for them to be happy, but the choices that people make that are actively bad for them and that hurt the people around them are things that don’t make me sad. I do not condone their actions, even if I do understand their reasons.

The long and short: being able to understand how someone is feeling and why is not the same as feeling bad for someone or even feeling sad about their situation, nor is it the same as condoning the actions that come out of that feeling. Sometimes the ability to empathize with someone in the sense of putting yourself in their shoes can actually make it harder to accept their actions or feelings, as your own choices and reactions would be so much different.

So what on earth does all of this have to do with Snape?

Well I have almost no sympathy for Snape. I don’t feel bad for him, I don’t feel that his story is particularly tragic, I certainly don’t think he was a hero. I can empathize with him in many ways: it’s hard to have unrequited feelings for someone, he came from a really nasty home, and the Marauders were fairly shitty to him. I know what it’s like to be lonely and socially awkward. All of those things suck.

But the problem with Snape is that all my sad feelings for him dried up round about the time that he called Lily a Mudblood and started spending all his time with the Death Eaters. He made horrible choices that drove away the people who actually cared about him (Lily), and hurt innocent people, felt little to no remorse about those choices, and then stayed bitter at everyone else because he thought it was their fault he was alone (James). Which is why I deeply disagree with people who assert that we should feel really bad for him, that he’s a hero, or that he is the center of a tragic love story.

We only have a little bit of information to go on when it comes to Snape, but what we have indicates that he’s not a very nice person. Lily befriends him as a kid, but he’s mean to Petunia because of her bloodline, and even shows some hesitation about Lily due to her parentage. He continues to show a strong preference for those who will eventually become Death Eaters while he’s in school, including Avery, Mulciber, Evan Rosier, Wilkes and Sirius’s cousin Bellatrix Lestrange. These are the only people we know that he was friends with. While we can’t absolutely make pronouncements about someone based on the company they keep, his use of the word Mudblood as an insult to Lily when she tries to help him, his treatment of Petunia, and his choice of friends don’t paint a rosy picture of young Snape.

So Snape grew up in an abusive household and was bullied when he got to school. These are shitty, shitty things. His response? To double down on some of the most vile aspects of his personality and insult his oldest friend in a racist, horrible way. No sympathy Snape, no sympathy.

The weird part of this is that the flashbacks seem to indicate that Lily and Snape weren’t horribly close at this point in time, yet Snape continues to nurse his crush for Lily, not making any efforts at dating anyone else and appearing to blame James for the fact that he doesn’t get the girl. So where there might have been some sadness for Snape about the fact that he had an unrequited crush, he made 0 attempts to move on, to be nice to Lily, or to take responsibility for the fact that maybe she didn’t like him because he said some utterly horrible things to her.

Some people have suggested that it’s incredibly romantic that Snape continues to care for Lily and acts to protect her son later in life. If this seemed to be a good faith attempt at being a nice person because he cared about someone I might be more swayed to feel sadness about his final fate and loneliness. The problem with that interpretation is that Snape is the one who brings the prophecy to Voldemort, and only gets angry when he realizes that Lily might die too. He goes to Dumbledore only seeking asylum for Lily, even though he knows how deeply she loves her family. And he only grudgingly agrees to care for Harry after Lily is dead (which he’s angry about and seems to have no joy that her son survived). He proceeds to make Harry’s life miserable, out Remus as a werewolf, attempt to subject Sirius to a Dementor’s kiss, and generally act like a petulant five year old because when the Marauders were kids they bullied him.

That’s not to say that their actions were good, but rather that Snape is now an adult who needs to behave like one rather than using his childhood as an excuse to put others in danger. In order to have a measure of sympathy, a person has to be able to grow, or at least attempt to grow over time, hopefully from the bad things that happen to them. Not every experience has to result in a major personality shift into a better person, but responding to hardship by blaming others and digging even deeper into bigotry, loneliness, and bitterness is really not charming.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the Snape redemption narrative is that he claims to love Lily, but proceeds to seriously hate her son. He treats Harry horrifically throughout the books, even after knowing that the supposed love of his life literally gave up her own life for this kid. If Lily were still alive and Snape treated Harry in that fashion, we would clearly understand that he was being manipulative and potentially abusive.

It’s certainly possible to empathize with Snape, to understand how he fell into the path that he did out of shame for his own mixed blood, out of fear of people like James, out of a certainty that no one would love him after he drove Lily away. But with that understanding comes the understanding that Snape made choice after choice that was cruel and unethical, and actually made his situation much, much worse through his own lack of empathy and care towards others. So I have very little sadness left for Snape as an adult who made his own choices and now is suffering the consequences.

Of course there’s sadness for the kid he was before he made all the shitty choices. But as an adult, even when there are bad things in your past, you’re responsible for what you do. And unless you make at least a little bit of an effort not to be an abusive shithead (especially when you’re in a position of power over other people, like a teacher with power over kids like Neville), you become at least somewhat responsible for how bad your life is.

I hope it’s obvious at this point that I’m not just talking about Snape. All of us have shitty things in our lives. Some people manage to turn out decently, or at least make the old college try to get better. Not everyone is capable of getting over all their baggage. That’s ok. The problem is when someone unrepentantly blames their past for their bad actions, or when they don’t even make an effort to deal with the bad things. It’s important to find the balance between empathizing with someone and understanding where they come from, while still holding them responsible for what they’re doing now. That’s where Snape becomes informative: I see bits of him in lots of men who have been hurt in the past but who use that hurt to turn against other people. And I no longer have sympathy for how much they’re hurting because they have actively made it worse, held on to the hurt, and probably caused a fair amount of it.

None of this means that someone who’s brought pain on themselves doesn’t deserve respect or to be treated decently. But they do deserve to be held responsible for their actions.

 

2 thoughts on “Empathy and Sympathy: What’s What and Who Deserves It

  1. ubi dubium says:

    I’ve got a bit of a different take on Snape. You say he didn’t really show remorse over driving Lily away, but I think he did. One of the things that leads me to think that is that the chapter where Harry sees Snape’s memory of calling Lily a mudblood is titled “Snape’s Worst Memory”. So his worst memory isn’t of the day Lily died, or the day she married James. His worst memory is of the day that he screwed up and first lost her friendship. The day that he made the one mistake that led to everything else going so wrong.

    Being a socially awkward outcast, trying to apologize to Lily would have been really difficult for Snape. His only remaining social support was the future Death Eaters, who would have been encouraging him to be an abusive shithead. If they found out he was trying to apologize to Lily, he might have lost their friendship too, and been totally isolated. Or perhaps Lily made it clear that their friendship was past repairing. So I think he just buried his regrets in self-hatred and bitterness.

    And Harry is constantly described as looking just like James, but with Lily’s eyes. So every time Snape looks at Harry, he’s seeing a constant reminder of his own terrible life choices, No wonder he lashes out. I think his loathing for Harry is mostly his own self-loathing. Of course the fact that Harry is a smartass kid doesn’t help matters any.

    But his dislike for Harry is also convenient in another way. He promised to protect Harry, but it’s also vital that the Death Eaters don’t catch on to what he’s doing. So a public show of hating Harry would have been necessary cover for him. The fact that he actually does hate Harry makes that easier to pull off.

    I’d still hold him responsible for his actions. But being rather socially awkward myself, I can also have sympathy for him. Even with a constant reminder of his own worst mistake in his face every day, he still manages to take on the extremely dangerous job of keeping that reminder alive, and also being a double agent, and doing it for years without ever breaking his cover. Pretty impressive.

    • oj27 says:

      I do think that the argument that Harry reminds him of his own failures is far more sympathetic than the typical interpretation, which Snape does seem to espouse himself, which is that he hates Harry because he hates James for bullying him. I’m not sure if we can argue that he is intentionally treating Harry poorly to cover up his double agent status as he specifies at the end of the books that he doesn’t care at all about Harry.

      He’s definitely an on the fence kind of a guy though, we don’t have enough information to know exactly what his motivations are.

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