Active vs Passive Empathy

Humans share 99.9% of their DNA. This fact is profound: our bodies make the same enzymes, proteins, and hormones. We share a biorhythm: human births typically take 9 months, human physical maturation follows a general timeline, and our sleep cycles are regular.  Humans are a social species, meaning that we require other people for general well being, and we participate in group functions. Ants and prairie dogs are also social species, while other species like the scorpion (who eat their young) are definitely not a social species.

In other words, humans have a lot of things in common and we need each other.

So why is it that some stories of social injustice elicit a strong emotional reaction within us while others don’t? One week in February saw a spike in violence in the news cycle: a massacre in Douma, Syria that left 200 civilians dead, the confirmed death of American Kayla Mueller in Syria, the triple murder of Americans Deah, Yusor, and Razan in Chapel Hill, and an arson of an Islamic Center in Southeast Houston.

Syrian death almost never elicits a massive public outcry — the Douma massacre barely made a blip on screens. Kayla Mueller’s death received coverage in the mainstream media and she is actively remembered in humanitarian and Syrian American activist spaces. The Chapel Hill murders evoked a strong outpouring of emotion and mobilization from the American muslim community: vigils were held across America, the White House was pressured to make a statement, international leaders sent letters of condolence, and hundreds of thousands of dollars were donated in the honor of Our Three Winners (as they affectionately came to be called). The arson at the Islamic Center received attention from Muslims and anti-Islamophobic Leftists, but not much concern showed up anywhere else.

We all know this attention inequality exists at the community level, but why does it exist? I will offer a theory and introduce two new concepts: passive and active empathy.

First, it’s important to distinguish between empathy and sympathy. Empathy is a strong emotional reaction that feels as if a person’s experience happened to you. Sympathy is a weaker emotional reaction based on pity. Both Empathy and Sympathy can exist on the individual and communal level (by the way, empathy is the complete opposite of psychopathy — the first is a strong emotional connection to another human while the latter is devoid of emotional connection whatsoever).

How we experience empathy is based upon how we identify ourselves. Our identities are social constructs we are born into and create ourselves. Like money and political borders, social constructs are technically man-made and not real in a certain sense, but they do have real effects on human behavior. Money dictates how we spend our time, political borders dictate how we move, and personal identity dictates (in part) how we empathize.

Empathy requires a knowledge of whom we are empathizing with. Knowledge comes in the form of knowing history, culture, lifestyle, quirks, details, etc. This knowledge builds up and is stored as emotional energy; it is this emotional energy that is tapped into when someone dies a public death.

In physics, energy that is built up and stored is called potential energy. When potential energy is used, it is converted to kinetic energy, the energy of motion. Muslim Americans saw this stored emotional energy for Our Three Winners in motion when it was converted into active energy and thousands of people were moved to organize and attend vigils in their honor.

I call this type of empathy “passive empathy”. I want to be clear that empathy is an amazing thing, and one of the more beautiful aspects of the human experience. “Passive empathy” is not a negative term. Because there are clear inequalities in social power, the way stories are told the the level of attention they receive is not equal. The outpouring of support for Our Three Winners is based off of passive empathy because no work was required to make people feel connected to them.

In contrast, I spend most of my time (read: all of my time) trying to imagine ways and figure out what I can do to make people empathize with Syrians. We are all human and share 99.9% of our DNA, but Syrians exist across different political boundaries. Their massacres don’t provoke communal mourning, and many times don’t provoke individual mourning. Usually, if Syria evokes any emotion, it is sympathy.

If we want to respond positively to rising levels of violence at the local, national, and international level, then active communal empathy will be required.

If passive empathy occurs because knowledge of the subject is passively acquired, then active empathy can happen when knowledge of the subject is actively acquired. This isn’t an abstract idea: active empathy means creating jobs for people to work on communications to organize within groups and between groups to connect communities together.

We need active empathy at the community level if we ever hope to build a kinder world for everyone. We need jobs not just for mainstream White america to organize mainstream social good campaigns, but jobs for minority and POC communities to organize within and outside their streams. There is no way around the necessity of active empathy: the technology age means we are connected to each other regardless of physical distance, and our connectivity is expected to increase in the coming decades. We’ll have access to violence happening in our cities and abroad in countries like Syria — and our communities will have to react.

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