Some opinions on empathy, compassion, and choice

Every now and again a discussion pops up about autistic people and empathy, often in the context of misunderstandings between autistic and allistic people, and sometimes, regrettably, used as an excuse for autistic men who sexually harass women of all neurological profiles.

The discussion usually descends into the familiar round of ad hominem attacks which seems to be the hallmark of internet 'debate'. But there are important points to unpack within it, all the same.

First of all, what is meant by 'empathy'? There are, in fact, two kinds of empathy: cognitive empathy -- the ability to imagine yourself into someone else's position, thoughts and feelings -- and emotional empathy, literally feeling with other people and getting upset when bad things happen to them.

As I hope is clear from my brief description of them here, there is a vast difference between the two types of empathy. It is also important to note that any individual, autistic or allistic, can have one, both, or neither of these types of empathy, to a lesser or greater degree.

When talking about whole populations, however, autistic people tend to have lower to no cognitive empathy and higher to extreme emotional empathy, and allistic people tend to have lower emotional empathy and higher cognitive empathy.

Let's think about those combinations. Someone who has a typical autistic profile can't work out why people respond to them the way they do, don't understand social cues, yet become distraught when another being is hurt, abused, oppressed or ridiculed -- the compassionate social pariah. Someone who has a typical allistic profile has some understanding of what other people are thinking and feeling, knows how to operate in social contexts, and finds jokes which rely on ridiculing, confusing or hurting other people funny -- the socially easeful asshole. 

Taken to their extremes, the typical autistic combination is frustrating, but the typical allistic combination is dangerous: high to extreme cognitive empathy combined with low or no emotional empathy is the profile of people who are able to engage in torture, effectively, efficiently, and without compunction -- they know intellectually what is likely to hurt someone else, without feeling with them in their pain.

However, none of these observations of tendencies and typicalities matters, because we are human being, with sovereignty, agency, and choice. Anyone, with any empathy profile, can choose to learn, and to behave compassionately and with consideration for others. That will look different in different people, but it is a capacity of all people.

The question that remains is, regardless of neurological type, why people do or do not choose that path.

Image credit: Photo by Aditya Romansa on Unsplash

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