Our correspondent Kyrie Eleison had some interesting things to say about the distinction between empathy and sympathy in the context of conflict that we post in its own right below. Thank you Kyrie:
In instances like this, it is always helpful to me to study the root of the word and how it was derived to determine its real meaning. Of course, over time, these definitions often change dynamically based on usage (case in point: the evolution of the myriad meanings of the word “faggot”).
“Sympathy comes from Middle French sympathie, from Late Latin sympathia, from Ancient Greek συμπάθεια (sumpatheia), from σύν (sun, “with, together”) + πάθος (pathos, “suffering”). The word ‘empathy’ is a twentieth-century borrowing of Ancient Greek ἐμπάθεια (empatheia, literally “passion”) (formed from ἐν (en-, “in, at”) + πάθος (pathos, “feeling”)), coined by Edward Bradford Titchener to translate German Einfühlung.”
So it would seem that the origins of sympathy are based around the idea of feeling the same suffering along with another person whereas empathy is a relatively modern and derived term used to express “feeling into” something as the German term suggests. The way we use it has no connection whatsoever to modern Greek and their usage of the term is quite interesting indeed.
Empathy is usually always a good thing in that, if nothing else, it helps us to understand how another person is feeling – provided you are right in your assessment, of course!
Sympathy, however, can put up roadblocks for us in many cases. An extremely simple example would be a person who has recently quit smoking talking trash about those who still do, without taking into account that there are many different reasons why someone continues to smoke. The obstacles the newly-reformed ex-smoker overcame in order to quit may not be the same obstacles someone who continues to smoke is still struggling with. It’s not always just a physical dependency, even if that is a big part of it. “No pain, no gain” is an example of how cold and callous sympathy can be.
Another would be Newt Gingrich speaking disparagingly about the less fortunate, in that they need to “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps”. Pardon me, but that process seems a little vague – care to share with us exactly how you did it so that we all can emulate? I hope it is more substantive than simply asking mom and dad for more money… if all he is talking about is working hard at an honest living, I’m pretty sure the bulk of the population already has that part figured out and does not need to be patronized.
At any rate, both eating an insect and the trials of childbirth can be both sympathetic and empathetic based on context I suppose. If one agrees that insects are inherently filthy and unappealing, one does not need to place it in their mouth to feel repulsed. Similarly, to anyone who has never witnessed or performed a natural childbirth, it becomes obvious that the mother is in acute and agonizing pain.
Your assertion that much lack of empathy being based on ignorance is extremely profound. I remember watching a piece about an eastern European nation (I cannot recall which at the moment, my apologies) where those in government who were tasked with devising public assistance programs actually had to live on the rations they were proposing for a meaningful period of time before implementation just so they could see first-hand how they would be asking others to live, indeed if it were even feasible to do so. Things like this are a great start, and seem to be way more progressive than anything we’ve been able to come up with here in the U.S.
I respect and value your opinion as an expert in these matters, especially in regards to how they apply to the art of conflict resolution, thus I will defer to your wisdom. I’m finding volumes of texts written by scholars, philosophers, and practicing psychologists who are way smarter than me yet are still waging this same debate. Being a “big picture” person, I think we have a clear understanding of each other in spite of words getting in the way. It’s almost as if we can feel where we both are coming from on this topic!
Newt Gingrich: not as empathetic as he should be aka in need of pulling his empathy up by its own bootstraps:
Political Footnote: I never found Al Gore very empathetic either…so its not just a Republican trait, this lack of empathy….Al could not imagine anyone thinking badly of him flying around in a private jet while preaching about global climate change…at least a failure of empathy, if not of integrity.