Thanks to Steuart Besly for making me aware of the courage and insight of Sarah Haider.
Empathy is a wonderful thing. It stimulates kindness, models a lack of egoism, and reveals an understanding of the basic unfairness of life.
But far too often empathetic people believe that the marginalized people on the planet should be given a dispensation to behave in cruel and abusive ways toward other people. When we put on our sociological hats, we can explain away any disgusting behavior by the oppressed on the grounds of their historical mistreatment.
But to do so is to focus on the sad face in front of us while ignoring the larger picture that any barbarity and ignorant abuse of other humans by those with a sad face stimulates more instances of the same inhumanity that caused the sad face in the first place. In short, interfering with the capabilities of another person to flourish is unacceptable even when the actor has been abused him or herself.
To return to the cartoon above: By all means be concerned about the condition of the mouse. But when the mouse insists on chewing the wiring in your house, the mouse’s behavior should be chastised. For anyone annoyed by the implied speciesism of my analogy, let me offer another. From my perspective the most oppressed group in our evolutionary process are women. Surely we must empathize with their historical subjugation. However, when a woman behaves in a socially inhumane fashion, will the empathetic please unite in condemning that behavior?
To advance your thinking about this issue, take a look at the powerful presentation of Sarah Haider to the American Humanist Association.