Where Logic Meets Love

The Opposite of Empathy

Friday, May 17, 2013

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We were hanging out with some friends the other night when one of our friends looked at his smartphone in confusion.

"Angelina Jolie had her breasts removed," he said.

I asked a question, which was drowned out by the chorus of confusion around me.

"It says she had a genetic mutation," our friend continued.

"Did she have BRCA?" I repeated.

He scanned the article. "It doesn't say." Everyone else looked at me.

"I'm guessing that's what it was," I said.

"So... what will she do now?" Mike asked.

"Probably have her breasts reconstructed," I replied.

And everyone shrugged and moved on.

I first learned about BRCA from one of my blog readers, Krys, who blogs at either eat this soup or jump out of this window. You can read her brief explanation about BRCA or go back through her archives to see her thought process leading up to surgery and the difficulties she's faced not being able to get reconstruction immediately following the surgery.

I've been fairly dismayed at some of the reactions I've heard online to Angelina Jolie's decision (and it was a decision, but undoubtedly one made in consultation with a medical professional and after careful consideration, not a snap fear-based decision as some people seem to think). People who have literally just heard of BRCA are ready with snarky comments or happy to say what they would do in the same situation, never mind that there is no way they could possibly know that.

I think this comic sums up well the incredible ignorance of many of the comments made:

And to anyone who wants to jump in and point out all the reasons that having your breasts removed and removing a bomb from your chest are not actually comparable, let me just ask you two questions: Why does it matter? and Who are you to care?

I don't think it's just that we as a society consider celebrities' bodies, particularly women's, as public property over which we have a say. I think that we have a tendency to be afraid when confronted with things that don't fit our schema of the world, and the first reaction to fear is Othering: differentiating ourselves from those who make us uncomfortable, contrasting ourselves with decisions we don't understand by saying we would never do the same thing.

We don't want to think about a situation in which we would ever have to remove a part of our body that was seemingly healthy. And so when someone does this, our instinctual reaction is to find a reason why that decision was wrong, to preserve our belief that we will never have to remove healthy parts of our own body.

It's not that different from the victim blaming that happens as a result of a sexual assault. We don't want to believe it could ever happen to us, so we create reasons why the person it happened to somehow caused it to happen, or at least didn't prevent it, so we can believe it would be different for us.

When someone commits a mass crime, we point to their mental health status or their nationality or their religion as an explanation (even if the explanation is different every time). You did this because you are fundamentally different from me. You are Other.

When I asked last year why people manage money so badly, it came from that same place of fear. I worry about money, and so my brain seeks reassurance that people who go into debt or live paycheck to paycheck are fundamentally different from me.

I believe it is a similar drive that prompts people to post things on Facebook like, "If you had a genetic mutation, would you start cutting off healthy parts of your body?" The framing of the question suggests the desired response: "No. That's strange behavior. No normal person would do that, and since you are normal, you don't have to worry about ever doing that."

This is the opposite of empathy.

Empathy seeks to understand other people. Empathy says, "I don't understand what you're going through, but I am open to learning more." Empathy says, "Even though we are different, we are both human beings; we are both children of God." Empathy understands that what your friend is going through today, you might go through tomorrow.

What I've seen in the wake of this news about Angelina Jolie is the opposite of that. I see people not wanting to learn more, not wanting to know how many other people are living with this gene, how many of them have decided to have surgery, or how much deliberation goes into that decision. I see people wanting to make snap judgments that allow them to remain secure in their belief that this is rare, this is weird, and therefore this is very very different from them and not something they have to worry about.

The difficulty is that this feeling of fear and subsequently of judgment and wanting to distance oneself is an automatic, visceral. However, we have the option of what to do with that feeling.

We can choose to indulge that fear and make snarky or judgmental comments about things we don't understand. Or we can choose empathy.


  1. Great point. I know I sometimes jump to judgment and forget the empathy.

    In this particular situation, though, my reaction would have been the same as yours if I'd gotten the news the way you did (instead of by reading this post!). I first read about someone choosing prophylactic mastectomy because of extreme family history of breast cancer NINETEEN YEARS AGO in Redbook magazine (which presented it very empathetically, as a difficult choice that made sense for this individual)--so it's old news to me! I can't recall if the BRCA gene had been identified yet at that time or if it was just that all of the woman's female relatives on both sides had died of breast cancer so her likely risk was huge. I remember discussing the article with my boyfriend (the reason I recall exactly when I read it is that I read it in the hallway while waiting for him to finish a final exam) and agreeing that it sounded weird but made sense, since the woman was done breastfeeding so didn't need her breasts--but he wasn't one of those breast-obsessed men.

    That's a great cartoon! I think the analogy is reasonable, if imperfect.

    1. Re: The whole "I thought this sounded weird but it makes sense" reaction, I enjoyed reading this Reddit thread about race where a lot of people had that same reaction to a variety of things. And the key, of course, is that once it's explained to you it makes much more sense. And so a person has to be willing to learn, and not simply write things off as weird and thus wrong, in order to get to that place of understanding.

  2. Eeeee, I had no idea that I was the reason you learned about BRCA! I don't know why but I feel like that's kinda cool. :)

    I absolutely agree with what you're saying here, too. I understand why it seems like a crazy surgery to some people, especially when they've never even heard of a BRCA gene mutation. But "Why does it matter? and Who are you to care?" is exactly the question for people to ask themselves. Angelina Jolie made a choice. I made a choice. Other people with the same mutation choose no surgery at all, and that's okay, too. What matters is doing what's right for yourself, and your body, and your risk factors. And being empathetic to those who may choose differently.

    1. Yeah, I appreciate how open you've been about your whole journey because I've learned so much from you! I'm glad to hear that what I said here resonated with your personal experience -- I don't want to come across as speaking for people who have BRCA, but I think the call to empathy and away from judgment is one we could all use in so many situations.

  3. The thing that gets me is, no one would have a problem if she'd chosen to have an enlargement done. Surgeries done to make a woman more desirable for the rest of us to gaze upon are okay. Surgeries that may make for a less enjoyable viewing experience, even if needed to ensure the woman's health, are bad. Strange, that.

    1. It is strange. Unless, I suppose, you consider the vast number of cultural messages indicating that women's bodies are the property of others, in which case it is not that surprising, just sad.

  4. If I discovered I had a gene that had an 87% chance of giving me testicular cancer, I'd make the choice to trade in those glands for silicone prosthetics and testosterone treatment in a heartbeat; no doubt, no ambivalence, no hesitation. I have no problem at all understanding Angelina Jolie's decision. I thought her op-ed in the NYT explaining it and encouraging other women to get tested for BRCA was terrific, too.

    1. Even though she didn't owe anyone an explanation for what she did for her own health and to her own body, I am glad that she took the opportunity to attempt to educate people so that at least some people could have greater empathy.


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