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The pathological self-righteousness of conditional empathy

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By now, most of you have become familiar with the random act of kindness displayed by one of New York’s finest.  NYPD Officer Larry DePrimo was captured in a heartwarming photograph taken by a tourist, a photo that showed the officer giving a homeless, barefoot man a newly purchased pair of insulated boots and socks.  As a native New Yorker, that story touched me, since for many years, I have witnessed firsthand many New Yorkers walk by the homeless as if they were insignificant and invisible; especially for an area like 44th St and 7th Ave (right amongst the bright lights of Times Square), where most tourists are too busy with their heads in the clouds to notice the desolation around them.  It was a reminder that, above all else, our capacity for empathy is what truly makes us human.

Within a couple of days, my faith in humanity once again dwindled.  It seemed as if sociopathic “journalists” could not wait to discredit the event and shamelessly disparage the individual who was the recipient of the generous gift.  Again and again, these sociopaths could not wait to tell all of you how the man was “not really” homeless, since he had an apartment for the past year.  Again and again, these sociopaths could not wait to conduct a background check on this person, and expose his past “crimes.”  Never mind that he had been receiving services from the Department of Homelessness services for the past three years, and that their case managers had only recently declared him to be stable enough to live on his own.  Never mind that this person is a veteran of the military, who served his country for five years.  Never mind that this person is currently very obviously suffering from mental illness, and has not been receiving the appropriate care (a prevalent occurrence amongst our veteran population).

Nope.  Because in the mindset of a sociopath, he received a “benefit” that he did not “deserve.”

This borderline insane argument should sound familiar.  It is reflective of an all-too-common tendency that many folks have: placing terms and conditions on their empathy.  Perhaps you yourself have fallen victim to the following examples of moral self-righteousness that characterize conditional empathy:

“How dare that homeless person look happy!  She must not really be that bad off.”

“Well, that family has a refrigerator… they can’t be that poor.”

“I can’t believe she is buying a candy bar for her kid.  So much for her family needing SNAP assistance.”

“I’ll only give that homeless guy a dollar if I can be absolutely certain that he will spend it on food.”

Let me be exceptionally clear at this moment: such lines of thought are to be expected from a 9-year-old, not a (supposedly) rational and empathic adult.  For one, who are you to judge who deserves to be “happy?”  Who are you to decide that the mere presence of a refrigerator eliminates the multilayered insidiousness of poverty (especially if the person cannot afford food to fill that refrigerator)?  Who are you to declare that the mental health of the homeless is something that “doesn’t matter” (especially given that conservative estimates place the prevalence of mental illness in this population at 26 percent)?  And most importantly, who are you to decide what constitutes “poor enough” to justify being a recipient of empathy or kindness?

When you attempt to engage in these nonsensical arguments, you are literally shunning the very thing that makes you human.  When you place terms and conditions on your empathy, you are literally contributing to the very social injustices that necessarily require empathic policies to eradicate.

About Nick Baez

Nick Baez, M.S. is a native of New York, New York (Lower East Side) and currently resides in Denver, Colorado. Throughout his academic and professional career, he has been a scholar in the fields of psychotherapy, anger and aggression research, trauma, youth leadership initiatives, and teaching. Committed to sound research and program development, Nick has been instrumental in tailoring programs to fit the needs of various communities, and subsequently evaluating those programs to ensure that they meet goals and standards. Most recently, Nick was the Mental Health therapist at Centennial High School in Fort Collins, CO. He has been a psychotherapist for 7 years, and specializes in adolescent populations. He has worked extensively with the National Hispanic Institute for 15 years, serving initially as a junior volunteer and currently as a senior staff member and senior alumnus. Through his work with the National Hispanic Institute, Nick has worked closely with thousands of high school students in helping develop initiatives to prepare them for leadership in the 21st century. Nick has conducted peer-reviewed research on risky behavior, anger, anger expression, and aggression, and has been previously recognized for his work by the Rocky Mountain Psychological Association. Nick has also done research on psychological trauma and its effects on cognition and interpersonal relationships. He has been invited on numerous occasions to give special lectures on trauma, co-dependency, ethnic identity, and social conflict.

A cum laude graduate of the College of Natural Sciences at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, CO, Nick holds a degree in Psychology. He additionally holds a Masters degree in Counseling Psychology from Colorado State University, and is currently a doctoral candidate there.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and should not be understood to be shared by Being Latino, Inc.

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