We understand, or at least we think we understand the theories about empathy. We know that in a culture directed by psycho theorists everyone is supposed to learn how to feel empathy. Everyone must feel everyone’s pain, understand it deeply, commiserate, show compassion and manifest appropriate sympathy.
I have often presented counterarguments to this pernicious notion, one disguised as an incontestable virtue, so I will not do so again today. I prefer examining what happens when the culture at large and parents in particular teach it to children and make it the basis for their moral education.
A conscientious parent, Jerisha Parker Jordan has explained what happened to her eight-year-old daughter when the latter translated the empathy lesson into too much kindness.
“Mommy, I was kind to her like you told me to be and she was still rude,” my daughter told me from the back seat of the car. “She even laughed before walking away.”
“Did you say anything back?”
We are only half-way through third grade and my daughter is already stressed. Not by the barrage of homework or the eighth graders who loom above her in the shared hallways, but by the effort of being kind, as she has been taught since pre-K.
Let’s be clear. There is nothing wrong with being kind to someone who is rude. Consider it an opening gambit. And yet, when your kindness is taken as an invitation to bully you, you ought to reconsider your tactics. You ought to have other possible moves in your command.
In many ways it is better not to respond to rudeness with equal and opposite rudeness. And yet, that does not answer the question of what you should do when your kindness falls victim to more rudeness.
One might say that greeting rudeness with kindness is like turning the other cheek. Yet, turning the other cheek is more like ignoring the insult. It is not quite the same thing as being kind in return. And besides, what do you do when you run out of cheeks?
One might well say that Jordan’s daughter is being taught to do unto others as others would do unto her. Yet, the golden rule does not tell you to be a patsy or a punching bag.
To be fair, the girl is eight. On the one hand it is good that she is obediently following her mother’s teaching. On the other hand, she is not sufficiently grown up to adapt to different circumstances. Her mother sees the problem and fears that her daughter is letting her anger muscle—as I would call it—to atrophy. Not because a child of that age will really know how to express anger appropriately, but because she ought to be able to express it.
So we need to take a closer look at what the golden rule is and is not saying. The golden rule is recommending that you set a good example when faced with someone who is behaving badly. If your behavior helps the other person to see that he is behaving badly he might apologize and change his ways. That should always be your goal.
When you answer rudeness with kindness you will be setting an example of good behavior, thus shaming the other person into recognizing and taking responsibility for his bad behavior. If kindness does not work, other ways of telling or showing your abuser how badly he is behaving is the next recourse.
If kindness does not produce the desired result, you will be inclined to try a different approach. When you are faced with persistent rudeness, you are being harassed. Your choices then become: walking away or confronting the bully. Obviously, the first is preferable to the second. You should only confront a bully when you cannot avoid him. Confronting him does not mean punching him in the face. It means calling him out on his rudeness, telling him that he is behaving like a lout.
Jordan describes the current impasse:
My daughter had become the girl I hoped she would be — the girl I always wanted to be at her age: kind, well-liked, and always making sure everyone was included.
But she had also become the girl who doesn’t stand up for herself. Faced with anything other than kindness, my daughter backs down, steps back, looks away.
We are not surprised to learn that Jordan’s daughter is learning the same lesson at school and in the culture at large:
For so long, she has been told to be kind. It’s the message plastered across every wall in her school and the lesson at the crux of nearly every children’s program. I myself have sung this tune to her daily. Consider how other people feel, I tell her. When people are grumpy or curt with us when we’re together, I remind her that maybe it’s not us, but them — maybe they’re having a bad day. I would rather be snide in return, but in front of her, I hold my tongue.
Those schoolroom reminders, feel-good children’s shows and even my adult behavior are all meant to teach her, as we want to teach all of our children, to empathize with someone else’s problems and struggles, But has the other message been that she has no right to feelings of her own?
As she absorbs the lesson that she should be kind in every situation, my daughter is slowly but surely losing her voice and seat at any table. Now, maybe she will take that slice of cheese pizza instead of the pepperoni she wants, if cheese is what is left after everyone else has their choice. Two years from now, maybe she won’t raise her hand in class to share her opinion because it’s not a popular one. What we said was “be nice.” What she heard was “you don’t matter.”
One feels obliged to point out that in a culture where everyone is being taught to be kind and nice, anger muscles are going to atrophy. More aggressive children will see this weakness as an opportunity to exploit or to abuse others. Aren't these kindhearted, empathetic children are being made into catnip for bullies?