Empathy leads to Understanding

The other day I was at Lehigh University engaging in a bunch of conversations about identity, sexuality, gender, and social justice (ya know — my jam). The groups I was talking with and to were eager and willing to learn, which is not to be taken for granted, but a sentiment kept popping up: “This identity stuff is complicated. I don’t understand.”

It’s the same sentiment I read in email every day, and see in comments and discussions around the web.

If that’s something you’ve thought or said, you couldn’t be more right: identity stuff is complicated. And it’s totally understandable not to understand.

Fortunately, if your goal in gaining a better understanding of sexuality and gender is to create safer, more welcoming, socially just spaces for people of all genders, I’ve got a secret to share with you: you don’t really need to understand.

Unfortunately, if your goal in gaining a better understanding of sexuality and gender is to find more clever ways to be an asshole — surprise, you’re already nailing it.

Understanding someone else’s identity is not a prerequisite for empathy; empathy is a prerequisite for understanding. We often get hung up on the understanding, and allow it to be a fabricated barrier in the way of us empathizing with a person’s lived experiences, when in reality we’d be better served leading with the empathy, and trusting that the understanding will come after.

That’s how it’s worked for me. It’s how it’s worked for, well, pretty much all of us.

This fabricated barrier is the thing I am addressing here. A better understanding of gender, sexual, or other identities is great — great for you, great for everyone around you, and I really encourage it. I just don’t want us to let that get in the way of being good people to other people.

Empathy vs. Understanding

Understanding is a level of knowledge that grants people the ability to articulate, describe, or define a concept — even if it’s just internally to themselves. With one concept, it’s possible for us to understand it on one level, and not on another. For example, most of us understand how to work a toaster (THE BREAD GOES IN THE HOLES!), even if we don’t understand how a toaster works (WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THOSE HOLES?).

Take Literally Any New Understanding As An Example, Even This Made Up One

When it comes to science, learning, research, knowledge, and other synonyms, we never get to start with understanding. That would be pretty sweet, though. Imagine what that would look like:

My boss: “Sam, I want you to figure out why people who eat hummus are better huggers. Also, it’s because hummus is so overwhelmingly delicious it triggers a response in eaters’ brains that compels them to touch their bellies to other bellies in the irrational thought that it might transfer the goodness through osmosis.”

No, unfortunately, that’s not how it works.

In the real-world Hummus-Hugging institute, I would have to get out in the field, eat a ton of hummus, feed a ton of people hummus, and start hugging it out. Grueling, I know.*

I’d have to ask questions. I’d have to listen. Ask better questions based on what I learned. I’d have to trust people’s responses, even when they were conflicting, because what makes one person a great hummus-hugger might be completely different from what makes another — they can both be totally right, even if they’re totally in disagreement.

I’d have to empathize. I’d have to do my best to imagine, whatever it might be, what it could be like to be in those different situations, all the different ways to experience that sweet, sweet hummus goodness. I’d have to stretch my emotional imagination. I’d have to go out on a limb.

*Actually, that job is now literally how I imagine Paradise.

Why does this matter?

When we get hung up on the understanding part, it’s easy to miss out on opportunities to do the “be a better person to other people” part.

If you don’t understand gender identity, you might be less willing to believe someone when they tell you what their gender identity is. Also, until you feel you understand the concept, you might be less willing to be part of conversations about it.

You don’t need to understand trans folks to realize that experiencing erasure, threat, and violence are things we should be trying to prevent.

You don’t need to understand androgyny (or why someone would express themselves that way) to understand that folks who aren’t clearly cueing the binary gender that’s on the door of single-gender public restrooms don’t often feel safe using them.

You just need to empathize with those lived experiences, and with the people who experience them. The more you start doing that, the more you’ll start to understand. But, again, that’s not even truly necessary (but it’s certainly not bad, either).

A good staring point: trust that when someone says they’re experiencing bigotry, discrimination, or oppression, they are — whether you understand it or not. And if you’re struggling with how to empathize, or what to do with that newfound empathy, lean on the platinum rule.


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About the Author

Sam Killermann Self Portrait

Hi! I'm Sam Killermann. I'm the author of A Guide to Gender: The Social Justice Advocate's Handbook, and I was featured in Katie Couric's NatGeo documentary "Gender Revolution". I created It's Pronounced Metrosexual in 2011. I write everything here and doodle the doodles myself. Bonus: everything I create is uncopyrighted and freely accessible — I even coded (& open-sourced) this site itself, my gift to you. Read More →

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