Weekly Thoughts 5

Cultivating Empathy While Rejecting the Anecdote

Understanding someone’s experience is important. It puts you into their point of view – their world. You begin to grasp why they say what they say and why they do what they do.

I believe this is especially crucial with those we do not know or who exist outside the main power structures. Empathy is a cultivated skill and the people it should be used the most on is the abused, the poor, the outsider, and the powerless. Their stories often are ignored, further marginalizing them outside the norm. Storytelling can be an empowering process and can help people to know one another.

While I am an advocate for always listening to and respecting the way a person views their experience, I am also against deriving opinions based on anecdotes. It is vital to hear people’s stories, but these stories make up a larger body of truth. Reality is large and almost unknowable, a diversity of perspectives and statistics help point to a broader picture – increasingly fuzzy and complex.

It is easy to take something we hear offhand and to take it as a truth. We hear the story of someone told by someone who heard it from someone and subconsciously our view on that particular subject is shaped. I’ve written about this before, how we need to assure that the voices we take in are diverse to avoid accidental bias; recently though I’ve been thinking about the tension that comes with listening to people’s stories and avoiding accepting anecdotal evidence as fact.

Take for example the recent events in Ferguson where people have rioted in protest against police brutality. My own experience of police officers is great, my grandfather was a police officer, and I’ve seen them take control of escalating situations with respect to everyone involved. They make me feel safe and comfortable. On the other hand, I must take into account the experience of black Americans in urban areas such as Ferguson who say that they are targeted because of their look or socioeconomic status. Their voices must be taken into account. Yet what about the perspective of the police officer as my friend who is a police officer provided his insight of what it is like to be a cop in the comments of another piece I wrote.

I could trust my own experience, telling people they are crazy for thinking any other way, because I’ve never felt that way. I could choose to only listen to the experience of someone who was mistreated by the police and tell myself that all police are arrogant, racist, or power-hungry. I could choose to only listen to stories of people who have been greatly helped by the police and think that police officers are all-around good people regardless of any context. There are many options and sometimes it is easy to choose one and just ignore the rest.

We do not easily accept complexity, we can easily brush off someone’s story when it doesn’t cohere or we can take the story of another and allow it to shape our whole viewpoint. Neither gets us to the truth, but it is comforting and that’s what we like.

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