Monday, April 4, 2011

The Limits of Empathy and Why Men Can't Be Feminists

Recently, during a class session when we were talking about theologies that were different than our own, I started thinking about empathy. Some students were quick to identify themselves in those theologies, to which I cautioned them not to be so quick to "find themselves"therein. For example, James Cone, one of the leading African-American liberation theologians, has been influential in and instructive to my own theology.  However, when he was writing in the 1960s and 1970s, he was not writing for me or any other white person. White theology had already been done repeatedly; he was doing something new.

This led to the conversation of: can we empathize with those who have experiences different from our own? Can we situate ourselves in a theology that is drawn from experiences radically different than our own? How do power dynamics and power differences affect our ability to empathize?

I read Cone's theology. I appreciate his theology. Yet, I would not dare say I "see" myself in his work. I have no idea what it is like to be judged, based on the color of my skin. I cannot imagine what it is like to be more likely to be suspected of a crime. I cannot imagine the systemic racism, partially overcome and yet still battled, by African-Americans, today. That is not saying Cone's theology is self-serving or has a scope limited to only his context. His theology has a broader message, as all theology should. However, while the message is one of hope, that God is on the side of the oppressed, it is convicting at the same time to those of us who are not on the side of the oppressed, but are, rather, the oppressor.

Simply put, there are limits to empathy. I have always understood empathy to mean that you can understand someone's experiences because you share that experience. Therefore, there are many things with which I cannot empathize. I cannot empathize with the plight of African-American people. However, I can sympathize. When I say "sympathize," I mean more than pity, feeling sorry for them, patting them on the head and giving them a look or shrug that says, "Sorry." However, I cannot empathize because not only have I never experienced racism, but I am also a participant in it, as a white person. I benefit from systems of white privilege, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

This leads to what, perhaps, will be my boldest claim. The limitations of empathy is one of the reasons why I believe men cannot be feminists. There. I said it. So far, on this blog, I have been called a "church snob." This may now lead people to call me a bitch.

Men cannot be feminists because they do not know what it is like to be a woman. Much of feminism is based on women's experiences, while also recognizing that there is no singular experience. However, men have never experienced what it is like to be a woman. Yes, men can be feminist sympathizers--working to promote systems of justice, working to upset systems of patriarchy, etc. Yet, while doing so, men will continue to benefit from male privilege, whether they like it or not. You can strive to be a "non-hegemonic male," but when you walk down the street, when you apply for a job, when you take your car into to be fixed, etc. You are still a man, are treated as a man, and function as one in society.

A lot of men get their feelings hurt when I tell them that they cannot be feminists. "But...but...," they say.  Ready for the really bitchy kicker? I think a lot of men want to claim the title "feminist," in an attempt to absolve themselves from the guilt they feel as a man. The guilt they feel from benefitting from male privilege, sometimes inescapably, and other times willingly. Calling themselves feminists make them feel better. Yet, their experiences are so dissimilar--even from the non-universalized, vastly different women's experiences--they can't empathize with what it means to be a woman.

It was once suggested to me that you can feel empathy toward anyone, depending on the strength of your imagination. However, I disagree; imagination only takes you so far.


  1. I'm having a bit of difficulty commenting. I'll try again shortly.

  2. Ok, enough of this long comment stuff. Here's a link: