E – M – P – S Where dyspathy comes from

In an earlier post, I explained “dyspathy” as my term for what stops empathy. Today I describe how I came to that idea.

At that time, I was working with a colleague from the city of Portland in the north west state of Oregon. Now, I have visited Portland and it seemed to me like a spacious, fairly wealthy, American city, albeit with more than its share of hippies and hippies grown old. I don’t recall seeing many black people in the centre of town where I was based. So I was surprised when Dave Ritchie suggested that we investigate the police shooting of a young black woman called Kendra James from back in 2003. In my project, I always work with recordings or transcripts of what people actually say, and Dave produced a transcript of a community meeting held after the shooting. In this meeting the mayor tried to bring police and community together to stop the escalation of bad feeling between them. But the meeting ran on and on, getting angrier and angrier, and ended in disarray; the hoped-for empathy did not materialise.


A march in Portland after Kendra James’ shooting

The presentations and questions at the meeting offered us material to help understand more about how and why empathy failed. We went through the transcript word by word. We pulled out the metaphors that people used, and the stories that they told and re-told; we examined what they said about each other and about the shooting.

What we found was a brave start, with all parties declaring shared understandings to be their goal. From this high point, the meeting seemed to experience a series of collapses, each collapse pushing empathy further away. There wasn’t one big clash that destroyed hopes of dialogue but various ill-advised stories and ways of speaking that each attacked the fragile connections offered at the start. The outcome was to pull the citizens of Portland gathered in the meeting back into familiar opposing groups – black vs white; authority vs ordinary folk – re-activating histories of violence, victimhood and hatred.

Police and community said they wanted the same thing from the meeting, ‘the truth’. But we found a gulf between their two meanings of what truth can be. Kendra James’s family and community wanted ‘the truth’ about how the police officers had acted during and after the shooting – had the officers really got together in a restaurant afterwards and ‘cooked up’ a story about what happened? And if so, why were they allowed to do so before giving individual statements to an investigation? Why had the officer used his gun and not his pepper spray or his taser, both supposed to avoid fatal injuries in such circumstances? They wanted the ‘true’ answer for each. The truth was there somewhere and needed to be uncovered.

The police explained their investigation of the shooting and how they were building, piece-by-piece, an accurate picture of what happened. Truth for the police was not one answer to be uncovered, but a patchwork of different reports to be understood together. Furthermore, there was one crucial report missing of how it felt on the night of the shooting – that of the police officer who fired the gun. That officer could not be present and his views were reduced to his technical, legal defense: “He was in fear for his life when he used his gun.” In a rare glimpse of empathy from the audience, someone wanted to know whether he had been scared and that’s why he fired his gun. But this glimpse of actual emotion was lost under the barrage of technical detail that the police provided in a long, dry powerpoint presentation and commentary, presented in the emotion-free, logical language characteristic of police reporting style.

The problem wasn’t even that the two meanings of ‘truth’ were different, but that they were made irreconcilable through the power of metaphor and rhetoric. Perhaps the police could have been helped to understand that their ‘multiple perspectives’ were not providing the kind of straightforward ‘truth’ that the community wanted; perhaps the community could have been helped to accept that there was not just one version of the event available to be uncovered. But the probability of such understandings was reduced by the use of the metaphors like “double talk” and “smoke and mirrors”, which pointed to police language as hiding truth from the community. Metaphor is a clever way to hint at deception and other bad stuff without saying it outright. The fact that the person who used the metaphor was a pastor and community leader gave it even more power to shape community reaction.

The same speaker raised audience emotions with a re-telling of the Kendra James incident that raised memories of old familiar stories of white on black violence, and evoked resonances of rape and slavery.

This incident, early in the meeting, began the collapse of the opportunity for empathy. The police report hastened it, and audience responses finalized it.

Several months after our intensive work on the meeting transcript, inhabiting the participants as we analysed their words, their attitudes and their ideas, I came back to look at the failure of empathy from my new perspective of dyspathy and, by organizing what I now saw, I came up with the E-M-P-S framework for dyspathy:

E for Emotions: Here, the refusal to acknowledge emotions meant that they did not explore how being scared (or angry or shameful or excited) might contribute to the tragic outcome.

M for Moral commitments: Here, from both sides, there was a holding on to moral judgments about the Other as criminal, bad or unfair that blocked the possibility of new empathy.

P for Personal experiences: Here, real pain was expressed when members of the audience recalled experiences of bad treatment from the police (back to E) and these stories further removed the possibility of empathy.

S for Social groups and the forces they exert on those who belong to them: here, police officers who spoke at the meeting spoke as members of the police – this constrained what they could say and how they said it, and how they experienced the event in the first place. The audience, which was in fact quite diverse in ages and lifestyles, consolidated into a social group around black social history, placing them more oppositionally than perhaps was necessary.

Whenever we want to increase the possibility of empathy, and thus of trust building and improves social relations, we can identify negative E-M-P-S forces at work in dialogue. Each can then be unpacked, understood, and unravelled.

7 Responses to “E – M – P – S Where dyspathy comes from”
  1. This is fascinating and shows how useful and practical academic analysis can be.

  2. It seems such a tragically flawed pattern of events that leads to that blocking of empathy. It’s good to be able to stand back and analyse the problem. How then to bulid on findings to improve situations?

  3. Bonnie Perry says:

    Your insights shine a light on an often unnoticed dynamic. Hopefully brought out to awareness in each of us, we can begin to take responsibility for our part. It truly must begin with each of us. Keep spreading the word!!

  4. “He was in fear for his life when he used his gun,” is a legal precept that, in Oregon, allows a DA to present a case for exoneration in deadly use of force by police. It is not much of an opportunity for empathy. To those who understand the City of Portland – despite payouts to heirs exceeding $8,000,000 – has never fired an officer for illegal use of force, there is little sympathy when this ‘Stay out of Jail’ card is played. In Sept 2012 the DoJ, Civil Rights Division issued Findings of an investigation being conducted when this article was published: “a self-defeating accountability system,” was terminology employed to describe long-standing policy that permits police to violate constitutional protections against misuse of force in the nation’s fifth whitest city. I submit that it is this fundamental lack of accountability, of justice long denied, that inhibits empathy more than individual or collective character traits.

    Grand juries find no wrongdoing; civil juries order financial restitution.

    By framing them as ‘old and familiar’ the author seems to discount appreciation for the degrading effects of systemic and unrelenting oppression that lead inexorably from the past to present conditions, described by Michelle Alexander as the New Jim Crow. I’ll simply set this beside a familiar quest for empathy … that the public cannot appreciate how difficult it is to perform the (sworn) duties of officers. This plea is issued when they claim the self-referential standard, “I was in fear.” It is echoed any time legislation surfaces to change this peer-nullifying standard to “what a reasonable person in such circumstances would believe” in threat assessment. This call for understanding is a false opportunity for empathy.

    A DA gets Officer Scott McCallister to affirm he was in fear and that grand jury is prevented from further judgment. Prevented from acting upon the knowledge that McCallister had an existing relationship with the victim; that he knew where she lived and could have later served a warrant for failure to appear in court without placing himself or others in harm’s way. Release of grand jury transcripts show that Multnomah DAs will go to great lengths to portray officers as having risen from Boy Scouts, and will portray now silent victims with suddenly unsealed records depicting health histories or juvenile criminal conduct … of which an officer was completely unaware at the time of the homicide. These staged, empathy-building circumventions of justice have become patterned through case after case. I invite you to explore the role of empathy in the manner of Grand Jury presentations by DAs in cases of police homicides.

    I fail to see how “recalled experiences of bad treatment from the police … removed the possibility of empathy.” Aren’t these in fact the grounds for emotional congruence? It is a general unwillingness by the dominant culture to absorb the humiliation that people of color experience as a milieu that prevents the public from doing what it takes to eliminate racial bias in policing. We understand, intellectually, that PoC in Portland are twice as likely to be stopped, twice as likely to be searched, and then half as likely to have drugs or weapons than Whites. Even progressives in our community have little gut-level appreciation for the soul-destroying humiliation of racial profiling; particularly among youth, whose lifelong perceptions will be influenced by the knowledge that they are being treated differently from their peers. I’ll submit that a vast majority of Black and Hispanic families in Portland have an experience that meet your criteria for evoking an empathetic response. You’ll find few avenues where the power elite absorb what it feels like to be thus treated.

    I consider “holding on to moral judgments about the Other as criminal” as a social good in this case. Justice demands it. A link follows to the DoJ findings of unconstitutional patterns and practices by PPB. Note: this investigation was initially sought by African American pastors … to establish civil rights protections based on race. These findings declare for the rights of those perceived to be in mental illness. Despite referencing the above stop data, people of color will receive indirect remedy, if any. Federal law requires the DoJ to establish INTENT for cases involving racial discrimination. Not so for the mentally ill.

    • Lynne Cameron says:

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on this post. I acknowledge how difficult it is as an outside to a situation, perhaps impossible or even indefensible, to undertake analysis and try to contribute to understanding it, so I appreciate your insightful comments from a more insider perspective.

      I’ll respond to one point you made to clarify my thinking – “recalled experiences of bad treatment from the police..removed the possibility of empathy” – here I was thinking that the possibility of community empathy with the police was reduced by the experiences of repeated bad treatment. As you say at the end of that paragraph, empathic understanding by the authorities of the humiliating experiences of PoC is an urgent need.

      • Thank you for allowing my comment. I also feel that, in addition to authorities, it is important for The People to find empathetic understanding … as, ultimately it is our responsibility to see our civil rights are retained. I have a whole other rant on why civil rights for people of color is in the best interest of whites as well.

        I feel certain that building empathy is important to our work at Consult Hardesty. Emotional communication can allow information to pass through false perceptions that are either intellectually defended, or incomplete due to a lack of information. Caring people, including our county health providers, perpetuate racial disparities in outcomes. Since racial bias is revealed in study after study (and Federal investigation as well as by City consultants) to be systemic and enduring in my community, I am challenged to think it is inadvertent.

        I am also challenged by understanding how best to evoke empathy in the dominant culture. Bias among whites, even well-meaning whites, is tough to crack. White Privilege is as difficult for them/us to perceive as aquarium water is to fish who swim there. Dr. Joy DeGruy, author of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, describes disparate treatment at the supermarket checkout as white patrons sail past: to most, racism is invisible … and entirely legal.

        We’ve been encouraging youth to tell their stories. When audiences feel emotional resonance amid depictions of unjust and debilitating humiliation, when those with power realize they would not stand for one moment to have their own kin treated thus, the group becomes more receptive to engaging in social and racial justice work. Mostly, though, I deal with audiences predisposed to such an awakening: the well-resourced masses, whose taxes fund public structures that perpetuate such injustice, are unlikely to leave other pursuits for such a conversation.

        One dynamic that I struggle with is re-opening others’ wounds. The most effective storytellers re-experience authentic trauma. It’s a tough thing to ask of victims, when the chances for changing dominant cultural precepts are small … and the cost of disclosure is so high to them.

        Your readers may want to know an online community (Coming to the Table) has formed, largely in response to the rising popularity of family history research. Whites are discovering names in slave tables; they are becoming inordinately intimate with knowledge of a slaveholding past. Many of us – upon the realization that we share DNA with descendants of our ancestors’ slaves – are building relationships with distant cousins that – in passing – we’d consider distinctly ‘other.’ It is a goal of CTTT that “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” We engage in consciousness-building around contemporary disparities that result in lack of trust and cohesion; in isolation and estrangement. CTTT does a good job of showing the direct-line relationship between America’s embrace of slavery and current attitudes and policies.

        It remains unsettling that those who are most highly literate, who have access to resources and live in communities that document racial disparities, are unlikely to respond to actual conditions. If building an empathetic response will bring the dominant culture to greater responsibility, I’m all for it.

        For data sets see
        An Unsettling Profile, here http://www.coalitioncommunitiescolor.org/docs/AN%20UNSETTLING%20PROFILE.pdf

        and The State of Black Oregon, here:

        For my attempt to intentionally use storytelling to invoke empathy, pursuant to this conversation, see my personal blog here:

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  1. […] vigil. I was looking for a photograph of Kendra and, discovering this image, found myself at The Empathy Blog. The author, in 2012, critiqued transcripts from a community forum that Jo Ann Hardesty moderated […]

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