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The pathological self-righteousness of conditional empathy

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 Adriana Villavicencio

Dr. Adriana Villavicencio is the youngest child of Ecuadorian immigrants. She has moved 29 times in her life, taking her on a journey from California to Bangalore, India, and New York City, where she recently earned a Ph.D. in Education Leadership and works as a Research Associate at New York University. An avid traveler, Adriana has collected experiences in four different continents and 16 different countries. But as a former high school English teacher, some of her fondest memories are those of her brilliant and brilliantly funny students in Brooklyn and Oakland. Adriana has contributed to several publications including the Daily News and, and is a managing editor for the Journal of Equity in Education. She earned a B.A. in English and an M.A. in English Education at Columbia University, and currently serves on the board of Columbia’s Latino Alumni Association (LAACU). She enjoys scary movies with red vines, Sauvignon Blanc, and her Maltese dog, Napoleon.

To learn more about Adriana’s education consulting company, please visit

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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