Stereotypes are more problematic than not and yet most people, even though they may be unconscious of this, behave according to what they’ve been told or have observed to be true, even though it may not be true. So, for example, if we are told Autistic people lack empathy, we will unconsciously be on high alert for any example of this. In doing so, we behave in accordance with the very stereotype we are critical of. In other words our own empathy suffers.
In the case of war, where we are fighting an “enemy” this type of stereotyping is actively sought and pursued so that those who are on the front lines can justify their actions. We are told the enemy are “radicals” or “terrorists” or “fundamentalists” or “extremists” or unduly aggressive, thus justifying our own aggression toward them, which is seen as “good” and “necessary”. Often we are told the enemy is deceitful, even “evil” or “bad”. Stereotyping is usually negative, but not always. It is a way to claim pride and feel a sense of belonging to one group, while seeing the other group as different, lacking understanding and often threatening.
To take this a step further, the people, usually a group of people who are not the majority, such as those who are being grouped into the “lacking empathy” category, may also internalize this idea and be on the look out for instances where they “lack empathy.” And yet, most of us can find examples of this if we look hard and long enough, times when we have behaved in ways that would be seen as “lacking empathy”.
Empathy is both a feeling and the ability to sense another person’s emotions as well as imagine what they might be thinking or feeling, coupled with the ability to communicate all of this. If communication is even remotely an issue, expressing one’s empathy will be difficult. If you are in a country where the spoken language is not one you understood or know, its culture one you are not familiar with, would you be able to adequately express the empathy you felt in a way that would be recognized and understood? Is it possible you would be misunderstood and labeled as something that you are not, simply because the cultural norms did not come naturally to you or you had not learned them and could not express yourself in a way that the other group recognized?
Additionally being on the defensive, feeling constantly attacked and criticized might also erode your ability to express yourself. Feeling anxiety, judged, and ill at ease might put you on high alert. It’s really tough to feel for other people when you are in a state of almost constant attack. This is counter intuitive to all human beings regardless of their neurology. But saying that those who are under almost constant attack (and for those of you who will argue that this is hyperbole, please know I am not suggesting every single person whose neurology is Autistic is feeling attacked, rather I am pointing out that many are and have been saying so for quite some time now) lack empathy is an interesting twist, exonerating one’s own actions and part in all of this, while holding another to a higher set of standards.
While stereotypes may help one identify with a specific group, they are largely negative and encourage assumptions that, more often than not, exclude rather than include. I keep hoping we are heading toward a more inclusive society, but so many of the current debates suggest otherwise…
This post was inspired by yesterday’s post over on Diary of A Mom, that Jess alerted me to.
Related Links from others:
Empathy as a Form of Communication by Michael Forbes Wilcox
Not Guilty by BJForshaw
I am in here by Mark Utter
The Sound and Worry By Arianna
Inventing Empathy by M Kelter