“No offence but...': Today's crisis of empathy
“No offence but...': Today's crisis of empathy
Of course we’ve all been there. We’ve all said the wrong thing at one point or another which has become misconstrued, misinterpreted or just received at a bad time and so, has caused unintended upset. It’s common to start a statement with ‘no offence but’ followed by a comment which is ultimately damming or degrading but, you know what, no offence was meant to be caused so that makes it acceptable, right?
Wrong. Very wrong. Of course, accidents and mistakes happen between people where someone is unintentionally upset by the words or actions of another and the situation is resolved through apology and forgiveness. This is familiar and normal, not malicious and hate-fuelled. Ultimately these scenarios occur through a lack of understanding and empathy between the two parties which climaxes in a clash of emotions over what is and what is not acceptable. They are then avoided in the future by learning from the experience and conducting future actions accordingly.
However, what about when this failure to empathise and see the other side is entrenched with an individual’s psyche by cultural practices and understandings? What happens when we become so blinded by our own struggles and plights that we become ignorant to the various sufferings of different people around us? When we become too enraptured in personal grievances and forget to see the larger picture?
For me, this is manifest in a number of different ways, namely in attitudes to race, women and immigration. Firstly, discrimination towards women is there; it is embedded in our society. However, some may try and tell you about the sexism towards men, and an emerging fringe movement of ‘meninists’ who are fighting for equality for men, not for clear cut equality which feminism strives to achieve. They cite family court bias and slurs such as ‘man up’, which while encouraging heteronormative notions of masculinity also cites females as inferior by their negation of this statement. Someone saying that discrimination against women does not exist * no offence *, is deeply offensive and ignorant, ignoring a history of oppression against women which is improving in some parts of the world, but in others is still very strong.
Similarly, racial discrimination is rife. The British Chelsea football fans who stopped a black man from boarding the Parisian metro singing “we’re racist, we’re racist, and that’s the way we like it” is a recent high profile example. Upon returning to the UK and being banned from Stamford Bridge, Chelsea’s home ground, the perpetrators and other fans on the same metro claimed that the incident was not one of racial hate and that the press have made something out of nothing. Additionally, Zach Braff’s apology for comparing Pharrell Williams to a flying monkey comes with the assurance that this comparison was never offensive.
Now, I’m sorry, but am I missing something? Of course both of these incidents are offensive. They are both intimidating and reference a long history of racial othering. Sure, those guilty would claim that they are not offensive because they themselves are not offended by their statements. Why would they be? They are never going to be treated in a similar way as the history and culture of racial discrimination does not exist against white people. Importantly, if you are not the receiver of the incident then how can you decide whether or not it is offensive? Surely each situation is subjective but education, compassion and politics will tell you that the two aforementioned acts are unacceptable.
I briefly touched on the problem of white privilege above and would like to explain it further. The problem is that the vast majority of people do not realise their own good fortune, both historically and personally, and do not appreciate their situation properly. This is the source of a lot of the unrest that there is in the UK towards immigration. Many people want to see the government close the borders to immigrants in order to ensure better services and increased employment for British people. While these arguments are valid, they provide no alternative or even empathy for the would-be-immigrants who are coming to the UK in order to find a better quality of life. They are too concerned with personal issues to see the larger picture.
Certainly, personal circumstances are very important and should not be forgotten. Empathy goes a long way in our understanding of different people and the reasons for the way that the world is. Ultimately, we are all sensitive beings and words and actions affect each of us in a different way. We must not forget that we cannot control the feelings of others and therefore must always be sensitive to each other, especially when in discussion with discourses of a historically important nature.
Madeleine is a final year student at the University of Exeter studying BA English with proficiency in French who has developed her writing and editing through her involvement with Her Campus Exeter. In her free time, Madeleine loves discovering new music in preparation for the UK festival season and searching for opportunities which can broaden her horizons, most recently this was volunteering as a teacher in Beijing, China, where she was immersed in Chinese culture and tradition. There are few things in this world that bring Madeleine more joy than glitter, velvet and sequins and her ideal dinner party guests would be Queen Elizabeth I, George Orwell and Taylor Swift. Currently, with graduation looming, Madeleine is exploring the idea of taking time out to travel the world on a shoe string before embarking upon a career in international humanitarian aid.