Of all the points on my negative review of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the one that got the most pushback was that I thought it lacked empathy, to the point that people had no idea what I was talking about, and I’ve been mulling this over. Something I’ve been noticing that has baffled me is watching people in the world talk about empathy like it’s a finite resource, to be doled out only to the worthy and deserving, when my experience is that, if anything, turning empathy off is the difficult and exhausting thing. One of the first things I ever learned about autism was that autism impeding empathy is not only a myth, the exact reverse is true – an autistic person has less ability to filter other people’s emotions, and often finds them so overwhelming that they get burned out very quickly, and learning how and when to modulate the emotions of others and stop them from becoming overwhelming is a big part of my personal journey. What I’ve recently learned is that ’empathy’ is used to mean many different things, and I found this explained not just the difference in opinion over A:TLA, but, like, a lot of things – this whole essay was set off by me reading an article about how Law & Order: SVU will respond to the murder of George Floyd, seeing showrunner Warren Leight describe main character Olivia Benson as ’empathetic’, and thinking “No she fucking isn’t!”
My anecdotal experience is that most people use the word ’empathy’ to mean ‘feel compassion for’ and in some cases ‘feel pity for’ – hence, “why should I feel empathy for an abuser?”. I find this very frustrating, because ‘compassion’ and ‘pity’ adequately convey these concepts, and neither of them fit what I’ve been using ’empathy’ to mean – I tend to agree with descriptivists in that pedantically arguing over the meaning of words is pointless in casual conversation, but the more important the conversation, the more essential it is that everyone understands the meaning of the words they’re using. When ’empathy’ is used in a more technical sense, it tends to be used to mean cognitive empathy. This is trying to understand another person’s perspective – the ideas and experiences that drive them. This is the kind of empathy A:TLA and especially L&O operate under; one way of looking at your standard procedural episode of L&O is that it breaks down one perspective in intimate detail, while the most famous plotline in A:TLA breaks down and explains the perspective of a teenage boy with father issues. This is how Zuko sees the world, this is why Zuko does what he does. What frustrates me is that this is only half the human experience, and treating it like the be-all and end-all of our existence will only make one less effective a human being. I don’t want to go too far the other way and downplay the necessity and usefulness of cognitive empathy, but it is, ironically, a skill that serves self-interest – we sort through the skills and words of others so that we can take and use them ourselves (for example: taking the phrase ‘cognitive empathy’).
The other kind is emotional empathy, where we take on the feelings of others, and I think this is the scarier and more difficult kind of empathy to master, but also more emotionally and spiritually fulfilling and something that makes interacting with people easier. Not only do I not think either A:TLA or Law & Order deals in this kind of empathy, I don’t think they’re even aware of it; these are two series with a deep compassion for the underprivileged and victimised, but sees them as problems to be solved as opposed to people with a common humanity. There’s a scene from L&O: SVU that’s stuck with me, at the end of an episode where Olivia has arrested a man for statutory rape, comforts his teenaged victim, and uses the phrase “You might think this is what you want, but you don’t.” Now, I know that a child is incapable of consenting and that grooming and statutory rape can have a corroding effect on the soul of its victims, but I also know that this girl doesn’t know that and that she’s blaming Olivia for taking her future away from her. This girl is in a deeply emotional place, and Olivia’s response is a humiliating invalidation of those emotions – ‘I know better about what you feel than you do’.
The thing I learned that made my thoughts on all of this lock into place was two different approaches to empathy. Most people’s first instinct is to engage in what’s called self-based empathy – if I were in this position, what would I think and feel? The example I was given was someone with dementia who has to step through a doorway and onto a dark mat who is expressing deep distress. I know this is just a mat and that if they were to step forward, they would be fine. What I’m being instructed in instead is response-based empathy, in which one looks a situation someone is in, how they’re reacting to it, and how the former is creating the latter. In that example, it was suggested that the person was seeing the mat as a hole, meaning one could move it, and that if leaving the house isn’t essential, perhaps it’s better to let them go back inside for a while. It could be applied to that L&O scene in that Olivia could have acknowledged the girl’s hurt and used it as a jumping off point for explaining her actions; sadly, it also applies in understanding there’s only so much you can do to repair the situation and this kid may be angry for a long time and there’s nothing Olivia could do to right that (which admittedly is a conclusion the show sometimes comes to, even if it doesn’t here). There are limits on what emotional empathy can do for you, but not using it at all is even more limiting.