Empathy vs. sympathy

I grew up in public housing in the UK, in a decidedly ratty blue-collar housing estate.
Along the way, I was stigmatized based on where I lived, and learned the hard way how unforgiving both judgmental people and the English class system can be.
However, one thing I noticed early on was that many people on my housing estate, instead of working to better themselves, were content to live off government benefits and live an aimless life. They lacked any willingness to step outside of what they knew and what their parents did. I found the phenomenon of multi-generational welfare dependency in several households, where the parents had never worked for any length of time, instead choosing to have multiple children and game the system. That was certainly not the message that I got from my parents and immediate family members.
Now, gaming the system is regarded differently by many people, depending on where you are in the societal pecking order. For example. hiring a crackshot accountant to ensure that you pay as little tax as possible on your millions earned as a CEO is regarded as perfectly normal (required even), whereas having 2 more children to gain more income is regarded by those same approvers of high-earner tax avoidance as some heinous crime. That is a pernicious double standard that usually tells me more about the selective bubble worldview of the accuser than they perhaps intended me to understand.
However, one of the results of my experiences in growing up, escaping from blue-collar drudgery, and eventually moving countries, is that empathy and sympathy are two different things.
I can be empathetic if I come across people living in grinding poverty who are clearly struggling. (If I was not empathetic, I would be worried about whether I was becoming sociopathic). However, I may have greater or lesser sympathy depending on whether those people are trying to move on and upwards by making good decisions, or whether they are either passively accepting their fate and/or making bad decisions.
It’s like people who claim that they are always getting into trouble. When I talked to several people in the UK who complained that they had been robbed and harrassed, I soon found out that they had been going to areas of cities that were known for being sink-holes of trouble. If you want to stay out of trouble, it’s a good idea to not go to trouble spots. This is basic common sense. It’s also the same reason that every few years when I lived in the UK, we would read about some British tourist who was captured by guerillas or some other insurgent group while hiking in a country usually named something like Afghanistan. I would shake my head in amazement that somebody would think it was a good idea to hike in Afghanistan. It’s like seeing a sign saying “minefield” and setting out to hike across it, or walking out in the middle of nowhere with a sign on my body saying “Hello I am a stupid tourist who can be used as a bargaining asset. please kidnap me”.
At the end of the day, as JD Vance has pointed out in his book “Hillbilly Elegy”, we all have agency. We can sit around and play the role of victim, or we can try to move on. Vance, like me, escaped from blue-collar penury, and, like me, can see both sides of the picture.
Governments really don’t have much of an answer to the “hollowing out” trend, because it would require them to admit things publicly that call into question the integrity and effectiveness of the capitalist model of governance. They continue to trust in market forces to generate enough employment, ignoring the reality that this cannot generate enough employment, in fact the number of jobs is shrinking due to the combination of automation and offshore migration of jobs and industries, and more and more people are trapped in areas with chronic economic depression and high structural unemployment (like my home town).
A lot of the people who are angry and frustrated about their lot in the modern USA have every right to be angry. The country has become progressively more unequal over the last 40 years, with the quaint idea of “trickle down” clearly not working in practice. I personally know people who are having to work 2 jobs just to get enough spending money for modest items. However, people who decide to play the victim 24×7 and expect others to wave a magic wand and Fix Their Lives (with Donald Trump seemingly being many people’s idea of the Guy Who Will Make Everything Right) do not get much sympathy from me. They do need to show some initiative of their own.
The rigid determination of many heartland Americans to stay put in towns that have no possible means for economic improvement is, on one level, admirable, but on another level is damn near incomprehensible. In the past, humans would completely abandon towns and cities if they were no longer useful or safe places to live. Maybe that needs to happen more frequently today.


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