Empathizing with actions above appearance
Posted by Ming Ling on July 22, 2013
In two previous posts, I emphasized the importance of encouraging children in general and girls in particular to value actions above appearance, noting that I would especially want to promote perspective-taking, self-regulation, and cognitive flexibility rather than looks. “Fit and Feminist” blogger Caitlin echoes this sentiment:
[W]hat your body looks like is not as important as what it can do.
She objects to the disconnect between achievement and the appearance of achievement, with regard to how we judge physical fitness:
When a person has a lean body, it serves as visual shorthand of sorts, indicating that the person most likely trains hard and who [sic] has excellent nutrition… You can’t see a person’s 1RM or their 5K PR, but you can see their visible abs, you know?
Imagery carries an immediacy that surpasses words and numbers, even when crafted into a compelling narrative. We process images much more quickly and viscerally than we process stories, and we have less experience critiquing pictures than we do analyzing and arguing using language.
Images themselves strip away context, removing the periphery and exaggerating the impact of anything contained within the frame. Still images also remove temporal context, inviting us to fill in but allowing us to forget what might have happened before and after the photo. In today’s highly connected and media-saturated world, we archive and recirculate images capturing unusual moments, someone’s “best of” achievement rather than the ordinary everyday which we mentally discard. Instead we create unrealistic expectations based on this visual vocabulary in which only the rare and easily perceived is worth remembering and emulating:
[W]hen we hold up ultra-leanness as The Fitness Goal for recreational athletes like myself as well as people who are just trying to keep themselves healthy, we are basically saying that everyone should be held to the same standards as elite athletes. This is insane! In what other area of our lives are we expected to emulate the best of the best? Are we all expected to write Pulitzer Prize winning novels? Must we all be capable of singing like the angelic offspring of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston? Should we all be able to engineer the tools necessary to identify the Higgs-Boson particle? No! So why does this idea persist that says we must all have the bodies of Olympic athletes before we can be considered fit and healthy?
Even trickier is our tendency to try to identify with the subject of a photo, mapping ourselves onto the person we see (or imagine). As Paul Bloom notes, people are influenced by appearance and perceived similarity to themselves when judging competence, culpability, and worth:
People are understandably empathetic toward the victims of crime, particularly when they are young and vulnerable, when they are attractive, and when they share our race or ethnicity.
[W]hen the victim of a crime is attractive, the defendant tends to get a longer prison sentence; if the defendant is attractive, he or she gets a lighter sentence.
[B]aby-faced individuals also tend to get lighter punishments, perhaps because they inspire parental warmth.
[J]udging someone based on the geometry of his features is, from a moral and legal standpoint, no better than judging him based on the color of his skin. Actually, both biases reflect the parochial and irrational nature of empathy.
Bloom also highlights our tendency to selectively empathize with people on one side of a conflict while disregarding the other, and with identifiable individuals rather than anonymous numbers:
Typically, political disputes involve a disagreement over whom we should empathize with.
Too often, our concern for specific individuals today means neglecting crises that will harm countless people in the future.
Appearances are seductive, readily merging with our imagined selves and crowding out invisible others.
What we ought to do instead is maintain a healthy separation between ourselves and the targets of our empathy. Parenting expert Janet Lansbury continually highlights the value of empathizing with young children, as distinct from simply identifying with them. It requires acknowledging others’ feelings while also remaining separate from them.
The more you are willing to agree with your child’s feelings while calmly holding on to the boundary, the easier it will be for her to release her resistance and move on.
They need to be able to complain, resist, stomp their feet, cry, express their darker feelings with the assurance that they have our acceptance and acknowledgment. They need to know that they have a leader who will help them to comply with rules and boundaries in the face of their No’s, and not be intimidated by their displeasure and disagreement.
Is my attitude toward my baby’s fussing or crying one of curiosity rather than impatience and assumption?
Am I soothing my baby by understanding and meeting her needs, or shushing, jiggling and stifling her because I want the crying to stop?
Am I following my impulse to calm my child by saying, for example, “You’re okay”? Or am I staying connected and centered by acknowledging her feelings: “You bumped into the table. Ouch, that hurt you!”
Am I hurrying the feelings along, or waiting patiently for them to be fully released?
Our capacity for empathy needs to go beyond thinking of others as replicas or extensions of ourselves, to recognizing that they are distinct from ourselves. We can acknowledge the reality and legitimacy of others’ feelings without assuming responsibility for changing those feelings or giving in to their demands. Instead of rushing to shelter or console innocent and adorable babies—focusing on their obvious appearance of vulnerability and cuteness—we observe their actions to better understand their particular goals and needs, which may not be the same as ours. Empathy is not ownership.
By maintaining this difference in perspective, both between appearance and action and between ourselves and others, we marry empathy to reason and allow space for incorporating multiple angles and unknowns in our empathy calculus.