When I googled “human empathy”, one of the first results was from Psychology Today—“Human Empathy: an Essential Component for Human Society”. Have you ever let yourself feel the hatred in the world, it asks? Turned off all the noise, gone to a quiet place, and contemplated how many people hate other people and the ways they express that hate?
People generally give two different definitions of “empathy”. Cognitive empathy is the ability to deduce what others are thinking, to know their mental state, to understand their perspective and thought processes. Affective empathy, or emotional empathy, is about feeling what other people feel. Emotional contagion. An infection, apparently, that is—that must be—a part of the human condition.
Immunity is unthinkable. Immunity is monstrous.
The steps that autistic and other neurodivergent activism takes towards the understanding and acceptance of different experiences of empathy are too often hampered by our feet, tangled in threads of respectability. We feel the need to insist that, whatever difference or deficit may exist in our cognitive empathy abilities, our affective ability remains collectively intact, normal, normative—or that it exceeds normativity, spilling over with emotional contagion. We might not understand what you’re thinking, you see, and that’s alright, because we all feel what you feel. We feel it to excess. We drip with humanity.
When personal experience becomes harmfully generalised—when our aim is to reassure rather than to disrupt, to widen the cracks humanity can slip through with tools rather than breaking down its barriers with sledgehammers—we leave people stuck outside, abandoning them to the realm of the monstrous.
I had to ask a friend—also autistic—to explain how, in their own terms, it feels to experience affective empathy. They described joy when friends are happy, sadness when friends are struggling: “as though it's happened to me, though the feelings are much less strong”. They might not be able to understand or translate others’ emotional state into words, but they can share it nonetheless.
Many autistic people do experience affective empathy to what we might term “normative degrees”. Many autistic people struggle with an excess of affective empathy, white blood cells struggling to fight off the emotional contagion of an entire planet of hurt. Many autistic people, like me, can say we feel glad or sympathetic when a friend tells us they’re happy or sad, but cannot understand or locate this “feeling” on the same emotional level as our own happiness or sadness. Many autistic people can flip through these different states at will, switching on and off those that are helpful or harmful in context; many, instead, career from one extreme to another without willful control.
These are categories of being that I have picked out of a swirling mess and made discrete, in an attempt to name and describe something I find unnameable, as difficult for me to grasp as the concept of going to a quiet place and letting myself feel all the hatred in the world—whatever that means.
I’ve barely begun to unpack the shame tied up in admitting I don’t know what it means to experience emotions for someone other than myself. Traditional narratives of empathy, compassion, kindness, goodness—they add up and multiply in my head to tell me that what I’m (not) feeling makes me a monster.
But compassion and kindness are not passive traits. They are active choices. I could be doing more—we could all be doing more—, but when my friends and communities help me see myself honestly, flaws and strengths, I am validated in the fact that I do support and fight for people, regardless of whether or not I can cry for them. Emotional responses and practical responses aren’t so disconnected for everyone; my friend said their affective empathy is a big driver of their compassion, whereas for me it’s about a purely objective sense of justice, and the knowledge—rather than the emotional urge—that it’s my responsibility to make things better for others wherever I can. Neither of these drivers is inherently better or worse.
Simon Baron-Cohen, a man known by pretty much all autistics and (at least in my circles) hated by most, responded to the recent UK terror attacks with a tweet that, whilst ostensibly sympathetic, essentially served as a plug for his book, Zero Degrees of Empathy. According to his own definitions of autism, Baron-Cohen, as an allistic (a non-autistic person), has a greater propensity for both cognitive and affective empathy than I do. I don’t doubt this—I’d imagine it takes a specific understanding of others’ mental state to manipulate a tragic situation into a self-promotion opportunity. Baron-Cohen is a prime example of the difference between empathetic emotions and compassionate actions, and his book—which explains violence as simply the result of a cognitive deficit in empathy—is a prime example of his ignorance with regards to that difference.
Baron-Cohen’s theories of autism, moreover, centre around the idea of the “extreme male brain”. There are many, many more problems with this theory than I have the space, energy, or knowledge to elaborate on, but its relation to theorizing empathy reinforces the deeply ingrained (and deeply misogynistic) societal expectation that a) women are natural empathizers and men are not, and b) this means that emotional labour, caring responsibilities, etc., must fall to women. Baron-Cohen is one in a sea of voices exempting men from the responsibility to act compassionately—regardless of how much empathy they experience, and what kind.
I stayed awake the night of June 8th, watching the UK election results map turn blue bit by bit. I tried, without getting very far, to trace a mental genealogy of the factors that guide the empathy of conservative voters in certain directions and not in others. I wondered why someone would feel the need to turn off all the noise and contemplate how many people hate other people and the ways they express that hate when instead they could turn on the news, or better—given who the news represents and who it forgets—, make a commitment to not only use other channels to listen to and learn from, but also take action for those in need of solidarity against societies and governments that (whatever the cognitive makeup of the individuals within them) collectively show neither empathy nor compassion towards marginalised people.
I saw the 18-25 age demographic turn out at record highs to vote, overwhelmingly, for a party that—whilst obviously imperfect—gives me as much optimism for steps towards systemic compassion as I could dare to hope for within the existing system.
When a hung parliament was announced, I went to sleep.
About the Author
EMRYS TRAVIS is a disabled writer and activist trying to queer a degree in Modern & Medieval Languages at the University of Camridge as much as is possibile. They also write with the Italian feminist collective F Come and work with the UK organisation Action for Trans Health.