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.

 

Mental Illness Isn’t Your Scapegoat

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: abusive relationships are horrible. We should do everything we can to provide people with information on what an abusive relationship looks like, how to get out of one, and how to stand up for yourself and your boundaries, as well as support for those who are trying to escape an abusive relationship.

There are many good resources out there on how to recognize unhealthy behaviors. There’s also lots of people out there doing work specifically with women and girls to remind us that we don’t deserve abusive relationships.

What is not a good response to abusive behavior is blaming mental illness. I can’t believe I have to say this, but it is 100% possible to have a mental illness, really any mental illness, and not be abusive. This includes individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and Antisocial Personality Disorder. Pointing towards abusive behaviors as intrinsically linked to any of these disorders is not backed up by facts (there are many abusers who use all of these same tactics and do not have any mental illness), and throws the rest of the individuals with mental illness under the bus in order to advocate for abuse victims.

This article at Self Care Haven has some great information about techniques that many abusers will use. Unfortunately, it couches it entirely in language of “narcissists” and how those individuals behave, rather than recognizing that any abusive individual can make use of these tactics (and many do), and recognizing that a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is not a life sentence to being an abusive person who cannot have real relationships.

Abuse is a pattern of behaviors and interactions. It is not a personality. We don’t get to simply label any behavior we deem bad as “mental illness” in order to ignore how we as a society have contributed to it or in order to brush off any support we could provide for someone to change. I am all for speaking openly about mental illness and the challenges it can present in relationships and everyday life, as this is the best way to improve treatment and diagnosis of mental illness, but more often than not we use the label of “mental illness” to close a conversation about a difficult or painful topic.

Gun violence? They were mentally ill. Start a registry.

Domestic abuse? Mentally ill. Don’t date people with personality disorders.

Do you just disagree with someone? They’re probably mentally ill too.

Here’s the truth: even the personality disorders that make it most difficult to hold down relationships are not a life sentence. Borderline Personality Disorder, which has long been seen as the land of the manipulative and angry, has an evidence based treatment that has high success rates. Many people with BPD have totally functional lives with families, jobs, and everything else a healthy human being might want (ok, maybe not everything, but they lead fairly boring lives for the most part).

There are absolutely highly functioning individuals with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or Antisocial Personality Disorder. There’s evidence that Cognitive Behavior Therapy can reduce symptoms and increase functioning, allowing patients to form better and healthier relationships. More study is definitely needed, but instead of broadly labeling personality disorders (especially ones that already come with a lack of empathy and distrust of others) as breeding grounds for abusers, perhaps we could put some effort into finding treatment for people who have these disorders.

None of this is to say that people who have mental illnesses should be excused of abusive behavior. But providing information about abusive behaviors and giving tools and support to victims is not mutually exclusive to providing mental health treatment options to abusers, and absolutely does not require that we assume a certain mental illness necessitates abusive behavior.

There are some parallels here to threats of suicide or self harm. If you have a mental illness, there is a possibility you will feel urges to enact these behaviors. Letting a partner or friend know that you are feeling the urges is definitely a good idea. Threatening the behaviors in order to get your partner or friend to do something is not ok and cannot be excused by mental illness. The urges are the same, the behaviors are different, and choosing the healthier route is a skill that can be learned. Similarly, the urge to use and manipulate people might be a hallmark of a personality disorder, but the urge doesn’t necessitate the behavior.

We can do better in how we talk about abuse.

She Said Yes: When Consent is Coerced

Apparently sex is just on my mind this week. Yesterday I shared with you a story about my personal experience of sexual assault, and today I want to talk about some of the ways that people manipulate each other in inappropriate ways into having sex. Any time you coerce someone, guilt them, or manipulate them in any way in order to get them to have sex with you, that is sex without consent. It is inappropriate and unacceptable. However from my experience and the experiences of those around me (yes, this is anecdotal, but no one has done a study on how many people say “if you loved me you’d do it), this kind of manipulation is common. So let’s take a look at some of the more common ways that people manipulate each other and what’s wrong with each of them.

1.”You must be a prude”

Let’s just say it straight out: shaming anyone for their sexual choices, whether to have sex or not have sex, is pretty much just a shitty and not ok thing to do. However if you’re trying to get someone to have sex with you just to prove that they’re cool, forward thinking, liberal, or liberated, then they’re not really consenting to sex with you: they’re consenting to a symbolic act that will keep them from being embarrassed. And what you’re really saying when you say this is that you won’t respect them if they don’t have sex with you. This is emotional manipulation, and if you coerce someone into having sex with you by convincing them that you will not respect them if they don’t, or that they have to do it to prove their liberalism, then you are not respecting their boundaries or their consent.

2.You’re punishing me.

Once again there’s a pretty basic myth underlying this statement: you are not owed sex by anyone. It is no one’s responsibility to give you sex. Therefore not giving you sex is not punishing you. It’s not taking away something that belongs to you. It is not treating you poorly in any way, shape, or form. When you say this, you imply to the other person that you require sex from them, that it’s a basic right of yours. You sound like a child throwing a temper tantrum. When someone says no to sex, it’s not about you anymore. It’s about their right to have autonomy over their own body. Their ability to say no to you doesn’t harm you. Get over it. When you say this to someone you imply to them that they owe you their body. That’s manipulative and creepy. It tells them they HAVE to say yes unless they have a really damn good reason to deny you your toy.

3.What if you never want to have sex with me again?

Oh my sweet Jesus the catastrophizing. Now first of all, someone not having sex with you ever again is still not the end of the world. It’s their right to say they don’t want to have sex with you anymore. Yes, if you’re in a relationship with that person it would suck and you would need to discuss it, but it certainly isn’t something to guilt someone over. In addition, let us repeat again that when someone says they don’t want to have sex IT IS NOT ABOUT YOU. If your partner is saying no to sex or feels uncomfortable, the needs of your penis or clitoris are not priority #1 here, your partner’s emotional well-being is. Changing the subject from whatever is making them uncomfortable, or trying to put the entire weight of your sex life on them over one incident is upping the stakes so that if they say no now, it means more and could spell the end of the relationship. It’s a veiled threat of sorts: if you don’t have sex with me now, you won’t ever want to have sex with me and I’ll be miserable forever/break up with you. Veiled threats and emotional blackmail are not acceptable ways to get someone to have sex with you.

4.Are you not attracted to me anymore?

I understand why someone would feel like this if their partner turns them down for sex. It’s highly important to remember that the vast majority of the time when someone says no to something IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU. If you suggest to your partner that you’d like to go to a baseball game, and they say they don’t want to go, it probably has more to do with their feelings about baseball or how tired they are or how busy they are than it does about you. Despite the intimacy of sex, this often is the case there too. When you ask a question like this, you imply that if your partner isn’t having sex with you, they’re making a statement about you or how they feel about you. You’re implying that they should feel guilty for telling you you’re unattractive. You’re setting up a kind of false dichotomy: either you have sex with me, or you’re telling me that I’m unattractive. You’re trying to take out the possibility that it’s totally reasonable and not mean at all to say no to sex. And it’s cruel to tell someone that their perfectly reasonable choice is actually mean and disrespectful to someone they care about.

5.You’re being selfish.

This is very much akin to the previous two but takes its own special tactic of nastiness. Saying no to another person, asking them to respect your boundaries, telling someone that they should not continue doing something that upsets you or makes you unhappy, is far from selfish. Particularly when that thing involves your own body. Again, this kind of talk tells you to ignore your emotions and ignore your discomfort because your body is public property, or at least your partner’s property. And this again activates major amounts of guilt, because it tells you that you’re bad, mean, wrong, or immoral for saying no. It paints the other person as the victim, which reverses the roles so that you’re apologizing for asserting your boundaries, when in reality your partner should probably be the one apologizing if they crossed them. Defending yourself is not an aggressive action, but this kind of statement turns it into one. It’s gaslighting to the max.

6.You’re taking away something that makes me happy.

Boo frickin’ hoo. Sorry, I should probably have more sympathy because yes it does suck when you can’t have something that you want, but let’s be PERFECTLY clear here: if you are going to prioritize the happy feelings of your genitals over your partner’s crystal clear right to say no, then you are a douche. They KNOW that it would make you happy to have sex with you. And you know that they know. So by reminding them, all you’re doing is making them feel like shit. In order to try to get them to have sex with you. Look, your partner is not taking away anything by saying no to sex. Sex was not your right in the first place so there’s no way they could have taken it away. Sometimes they consent to give you a part of themselves out of the goodness of their heart and that makes you happy. YAY! But that in no way means they owe it to you in the future to continue giving it to you. Your happiness is not your partner’s responsibility, and if you think it is then you’re setting your partner up for a lot of guilt, a lot of unhappiness, and a lot of ignoring their own interests for yours.

7.Well what if we just…

Compromise is generally a good thing. If your partner shuts down one thing but you’re super into it, it’s perfectly reasonable to say something like “Ok, we absolutely don’t have to do that. I’d be really interested in trying something else. What do you feel about ___”. But there’s a difference between that and the “what about” game. This is the game where every time your partner says no you try a different question, a different version. You wear them down. You make it sound reasonable to demand a blowjob because you aren’t getting sex. You paint your request as really not a very big deal after all, in fact something your partner really shouldn’t have any issue with because it’s so minute, even though it might be a sexual act that they don’t want to perform. And you do this until they give in because they’re going crazy trying to say no to everything and feeling like a jerk for shooting everything down. Sex isn’t haggling. Someone’s body isn’t for sale and it’s not up for a bargain.

8.Why won’t you think about my feelings?

Once again, this kind of statement prioritizes your feelings over your partner’s mental health and safety, and it tells them that they should be doing the same because if they don’t they are being unsympathetic and paying no attention to their partner’s feelings. It implies that if your partner cared about you and your feelings, then there is only one decision that they would or could make: giving you what you want. It’s another way of turning yourself into the victim and implying that your partner MUST owe you sex if they care about you. Let’s be honest, your partner already knows all about your feelings because you’ve made it damn obvious that you want sex and that sex is important to you. Our whole CULTURE tells us that having a healthy sex life is SO IMPORTANT so even if they don’t know about your feelings in particular they know about the feelings that you’re expected to have and so they already know they’re being “bad” by not providing sex. So reminding them one more time? It’s petty and you’re not doing it because you think they don’t know.

9.You’ve done this before, you should be able to do it again.

This is not how consent works. If someone consented to something yesterday and then does not consent to it today, their consent from yesterday is negated. Someone is allowed to change their mind about things! CRAZY! I may have wanted chocolate yesterday and not want any today, but that doesn’t mean I HAVE to eat chocolate today. When you say this, you’re trapping someone into thinking that they are being inconsistent, irrational, and overly emotional by changing their opinion. You indicate that once they have said yes they can’t rescind their yes without being completely crazy. This really makes it hard to say no, to react to one’s emotions, to take care of oneself. It’s not cool.

10.I don’t know how to understand you love me if we don’t have sex.

This is your own god damn problem. If you can’t understand multiple ways of expressing affection, then you are a significantly stunted human being and that’s something you should probably work on. Telling your partner that they have to bend to your whim once again indicates that your inability to communicate needs to be solved with their body. It’s a special kind of guilt trip because it’s the barely logical cousin of “If you loved me you’d have sex with me”. If you want to express love, then respecting your partner’s boundaries is the best way to go. Guilting them into thinking they have to have sex to prove their love for you? Not so much.

11.I just want you to feel good.

If you wanted your partner to feel good, you would listen to what they say they want. If they say something doesn’t feel good or they don’t want it, don’t do it. What this message is ACTUALLY saying is that your partner must be CRAZY for saying no because you only want what’s best for them. They must not be thinking clearly. And not only that, but they probably should feel good because that’s what happens when people who love each other get sexy, amirite? So wrong. Your partner is allowed to not feel good, and allowed to feel good in whatever way they so choose, not the way YOU choose.

12.What about now?

When your partner says no, let them have their fucking no. This question is essentially the battering ram of emotional manipulation. It’s not very sneaky and it’s really easy to say no to…the first fifty times. But eventually most doors are going to get broken down just because your partner is so fucking tired of saying no. Do you really want your partner to say yes just because they’re sick of going through the dance? Probably not, because that’s not really consent.

  1. “If you believed in true equality, you wouldn’t be afraid of men, so you’d meet up with me & try me out” (submitted from twitter).

Really? I mean reaaaaally. This is clearly from someone who thinks they’re super sly but doesn’t realize that trying to make someone feel like they have to prove their liberalism cred is a shitty way to convince them to get with you. We all know that equality doesn’t mean you have to like everyone or go on a date with everyone, but apparently some people want to convince you that if you don’t, you’re shitty, discriminatory, and mean. Again, not a very good way to obtain consent.