Empathy and sympathy – the differences

We live in a strange world where it is increasingly difficult to be pragmatic and thoughtful without one or another group of people excoriating your worldview.
I have been accused directly (leaving aside the juveniles who prefer to substitute “libtard” for anything resembling an argument) of being arrogant, lacking empathy, and being too sympathetic to nasty people on multiple occasions in the recent past.
Accusing somebody of “arrogance” is what is known as tone trolling. It is a complaint about perceived style, not substance. If people want to discuss something with me, they need to stick to substance. If they want to make it about my “arrogance”, I’m not playing. That simply allows them to retreat into dismissal based on emotion. It reveals them as unserious.
The “lacking empathy” and “being too sympathetic” allegations are much more interesting. To me, they are actually rooted in a misconception of the meaning of the words empathy and sympathy, which are not interchangeable.
Let’s take the example of a person who is a hardcore alcoholic, unable to control their intake of that substance. They may have been through multiple failed attempts at rehab, but they are unable to stop uncontrolled ingestion of alcohol, and their life is slowly spiralling downwards, out of control. Outside observers can see nothing good in their future, absent a change in behavior.
I have a lot of empathy for those kinds of people. They are trapped in a dangerous place, and their lives are not in the slightest bit positive or fun. This must be horrible.
However, my sympathy for many of them is limited, since in many cases they have been given multiple chances to change their behavior, usually at family or public expense, and they have somehow been unable or unwilling to take those chances and make something of them. To recycle an old saying, they have visited the Last Chance Saloon more than once.
Unlimited sympathy often results in excessive tolerance. This in turn results in people who are behaving badly being enabled to continue their bad behaviors.
To use another example, a friend of my ex-wife was married to a bully. His bullying behavior was learned from his father, who was an abusive, bullying family patriarch. The main reason why he was the abusive bullying patriarch was that the rest of the family walked on eggshells around him at family events, unwilling to confront his bad behavior by challenging him to stop behaving like an asshole. As he saw it, his behavior was OK because nobody was complaining about it.
Empathy and sympathy are not the same concepts. Beware that conflation, since it can be used by people at both binary ends of an issue to justify their own positions by attacking yours claiming that you either have too much empathy/sympathy, or not enough. When you hear or read that kind of messaging, turn on your bullshit detector.


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