Stop Confusing Empathy With Oversensitivity

I’ve stayed quiet for a while on this topic as I’ve patiently read through numerous articles that have been surfacing on the inter-world about the pros and cons of a changing culture of increased awareness for institutionalized problems, particularly in universities. This article from The Atlantic poses a good summary of one side of the argument.

Unfortunately, as with many topics surrounding ethics and morality, misconceptions are almost certainly a given, and this article is no exception. So let’s begin to clear some up.

Beginning at the very basic of concept definitions is the trigger warning, which is not in fact meant to dissuade or permit an individual to skip over something that may elicit a strong emotional response. What a trigger warning is meant to do is to alert the audience that the upcoming content may be triggering and hence they should mentally and emotionally prepare themselves for what they are about to experience, whether it be literature, film, art, etc. The idea here is to prepare an individual, to notify them that this may be a topic requiring extra preparation; it is not meant to turn an individual away from the experience. When someone posts a trigger warning, they are not expressing tolerance of over-sensitivity, they are expressing empathy in that they understand their audience’s life experiences may be different from their own and they may react in a harmful way if they are not prepared. Trigger warnings are essentially acts of acceptance and equity.

Next, let’s talk about the concept of a “safe space”, which is being condemned by some as shielding young adults from speech that makes them uncomfortable. The point of a safe space, though, is, again, not about censorship or exclusion of particular words. It is about the acceptance and inclusion of all individuals regardless of their personal situations, experiences, and self-expressions. And the trivialization of what safe spaces offer compassion for as just things that make someone “uncomfortable” is a permeating, harmful idea in our society. The discomfort of institutionalized violence of any form is fatal, as anyone who has experienced the death of loved ones can tell you. Safe space doesn’t mean tip-toeing around sensitive issues; safe space means empathetically considering one’s actions and words.

This leads me to another concept that is frequently condemned; the creation of a culture of vindictive protectiveness. The article cited above states that the culture created is one in which “everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.” The ridiculousness of this statement should not be lost on you. Aren’t intelligent, mindful people generally expected to think twice before offering insight on a particular issue? Again, this is not a case of being overly sensitive, this is a case of being empathetic. The words that come out of your mouth should not negatively impact another individual, and if you, with whatever level of empathy you are operating on, believe they will harm another person, then why would you further desire to speak those words? If you did not foresee the harm you cause, then that likely means you are operating on too low a level of empathy and should correct that; the consequences that follow are meant to show you where you need the boost. That’s the harsh reality of it, honestly.

Now, the fact that modern youth are becoming sensitive to polarized political stances can certainly be a problem, I agree with that, but only in so far as they are being improperly educated. Unfortunately, our education system, operated by our society of course, has interpreted the culture change as being about over-sensitivity and, as such, has passed that interpretation to the youth. This paradoxically creates the environment that many modern teachers cite as censoring them from teaching “sensitive” topics. In fact, the point of this movement is not to stop teaching both sides of an argument; the point is to teach empathy. The point is to teach how the different sides of an argument or situation can co-exist, how they came to be in relation to each other, and how life experiences can shape their interpretation for different people. If, once prepared with all of this knowledge, an individual still chooses to take a polarized stance on an issue, then their stance is that much more reliable. Having educated opinions should not be seen as problematic if one has faith in the education. The fact that people are worried about this says more about their distrust of the education system than of the youth’s ideologies, but it’s a lot scarier to condemn society’s systems than the beliefs of youth.

My final point will be regarding the assertion that we have come to such a sensitive point in this culture where the argument “I’m offended” is an “unbeatable trump card”. If that were actually the case anywhere ever, I would take a seat right now. Starting from the way victims of sexual assault are treated by universities and the law, and ending at the unrealistic presentation of women (and men) in the media, offense has never been taken into consideration. This is another consequence of society interpreting victims as too sensitive to offenses. This is because our society does not understand or teach empathy, and hence people’s particular life experiences appear invalid as reasons to feel triggered by something.

Sensitivity is inhibitory; it incites fear in people and stops them from pushing past the comfort zone to where the magic happens. Empathy is different; empathy allows broadening of thought and perspective, and it allows people to critically analyze the world. I once had a conversation with someone that I can’t seem to forget, where he mused that the cure to the flaws in our society could very well be empathy; that the world be such a better place if we all had more of it. I find myself agreeing with this more and more each day. Thought Catalog Logo Mark


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