Lack of Empathy is not Strength

It took me a while to decide on the topic for this blog. I was thinking I’d write something about my novels and what they’re all about, but I wasn’t sure where to start. I briefly toyed with the idea of commenting on the US presidential election along with half the world. Yesterday, though, I had a chance encounter with the over-used phrase “strong female character”, wondered why it irritated me, and in thinking about it realised these topics are all bound up together. Forgive me if this is a long post, but here’s how:

Let’s start with “strong female characters”. What irks me about these are two-fold: first that the phrase is often used for those stereotypical “badass” women, who make certain they get what they want by whatever means.

In the words of Carina Chocano in New York Times Magazine, they are “tough, cold, terse, taciturn and prone to not saying goodbye when they hang up the phone.” They “tolerate very little blubbering, dithering, neuroticism, anxiety, melancholy or any other character flaw or weakness that makes a character unpredictable and human.”

In other words, they’re driven and strongly individualistic, with little regard or lost sleep on behalf of those around them. Which is not a problem in itself, there’s definitely a place for such characters, and they can make for some fun reading. It just bugs me how misleading it is to term these women “strong” and applaud them for it, when in real life, strength, as in “strength of character” is so much more than being kick-ass.

With a bit of googling, I found I wasn’t alone. Here’s something written by Sophia McDougall in the New Statesman:

“What happens when one tries to fit iconic male heroes into an imaginary “Strong Male Character” box?  A few fit reasonably well, but many look cramped and bewildered in there. They’re not used to this kind of confinement, poor things. They’re used to being interesting across more than one axis and in more than two dimensions.

Is Sherlock Holmes strong? It’s not just that the answer is “of course”, it’s that it’s the wrong question. A better question would be – “What is Sherlock Holmes like?”

He’s a brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, polymath genius. Adding the word “strong” to that list doesn’t seem to me to enhance it much.

I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or both or neither, because they are more than strength or weakness… I want her to be strong in a way that isn’t about physical dominance or power.”

I find that characters who are not of the alpha female type inevitably are dismissed with a label of weak. It’s as though the definition of weakness is as broad as that of strength is narrow, so that characters who are far more emotionally nuanced must be compared unfavourably.

Just take the backlash against the 2015 film Cinderella. In this version, her mother’s dying wish is that she “have courage and show kindness”. But it seems in modern society, these traits are no longer considered admirable. Cinderella was seen as passive, if not pathetic, for not standing up for herself more, or just leaving, but to me she shows remarkable strength. For a discussion which explains my feelings on this far better than I could, I quote from this site:

“The idea that anyone with sense and self-respect would fight back is insidious, and it does not match up with reality, not even in a modern, non-fairy tale setting. Cinderella is initially a victim of micro-aggressions, each of which seems perfectly justifiable in the moment. The abuse escalates gradually, until it becomes a norm that Cinderella feels that she cannot escape.

That is the reality of abusers using a victim’s own kindness against them. Cinderella’s great strength is not just that she stands up to her stepmother in the end. It’s also that she retains her own kindness, remains true to her personality — she doesn’t have to become someone she’s not to escape”.

The way I see it, Cinderella is not passive, she is not accepting the situation she finds herself in. What she is trying to do is find a way out that does minimal harm, not just to herself but to those around her. She is showing enormous courage.

It’s the type of courage displayed by leaders who follow codes of non-violence – think Gandhi or Martin Luther King. These people are respected for having the courage of their convictions and for their understanding of the common humanity of all people. Nobody would call them weak or passive, they had a different kind of strength.

The thing that worries me is what society we are living in now that can place so much emphasis on the sort of strength which is characterised by a lack of compassion or empathy. And before you accuse me of sounding like an old maid, harking back to the mythical golden times of my youth, there’ve been studies done on this. Apparently, in America at least, levels of self-reported empathy have plummeted.

Quoting from:

“According to a comprehensive study from the University of Michigan, we care about others 40 percent less than people in the 1980s did, with the biggest drop-off in empathy occurring after the year 2000. 

But also, researchers suggest, the expectations of modern society have changed—and not necessarily for the better for college students. Competitiveness and a must-succeed-at-all-costs philosophy is far more prevalent than in previous generations… Feeling empathy for others takes time and effort, which could be better spent, at least in the minds of young people, on achieving their own goals”.

Apparently, we’re living in an age of narcissism, the defining features of which are: an inflated sense of self-importance, and little or no ability to empathize with other people. And I’m sure you’ve heard about the skewed proportion of people in upper levels of management, the corporate CEOs, who have sociopathic traits. What does this mean for society?

To quote from Psychology Today “Beware America’s Shocking Loss of Empathy”:

“Here’s a sobering thought for the idealists among us: Even if we someday achieve a truly fair and just society, that society will nevertheless be inhabited by the same species that produced the Holocaust.

…the country’s political dynamics—the interactions between candidates, the policy proposals being considered, and even the conduct of ordinary citizens—increasingly reflect a complete lack of human empathy, a view toward others that is willfully insensitive, if not outright contemptuous.

…voters are getting the political discourse that reflects their own mindset: angry, fearful, incapable of complex analysis, and hostile toward others.”

I think you can see where Donald Trump fits into this blog, so let’s not re-tread that muddy ground, I’ll leave the politics there.

What you may be wondering is how all this relates to my novels and the answer is: it is key. At the core of my Transhumanity series is an exploration of loss of empathy. In fact, the title of the last book in the series is just that: The Empathy Key.

My protagonist is a young woman who, over the course of the series, becomes increasingly cyborg. By the last book, she is barely recognisable as human, and this has affected her not just physically but in how she relates to other people.

In one scene, Mac tries to explain to his daughter:

“Would you ever kill a flutterbug?” he asked.

            “Of course not.” Flutterbugs were delicate flying creatures the length of a hand, with iridescent wings. 

            “When I fly the aircar, sometimes I hit a flutterbug and kill it.”

            Lilly frowned. “Yes, but you don’t mean to. It’s not like deliberately squashing one.”

            “No,” he agreed. “It doesn’t seem the same. Because I’m not touching it myself, I feel more distant, as though it was the car that killed it and nothing to do with me. I think that’s what life’s like for Thea. Her cybernetics are like the aircar, buffering her from the world. She becomes detached from other people. It was hard for her because she knew she ought to still care about the flutterbugs, but she didn’t, not really.”

What I’ve created, you might say, is the ultimate stereotypical strong female character. Physically, she’s almost indestructible. In her powerful cyborg form, she becomes a force for justice, but in a sense she has become something evil, a sociopathic killer.

The remains of her organic body cannot stay attached to the cybernetics all the time. Sometimes she has to disconnect and then she is disabled, very disabled, and physically helpless. This dichotomy of physical strength and vulnerability could be seen in terms of levels of power and agency and how they affect our relationships with others.

The big question is not only whether she can save the world, but whether she can recover her humanity. Of the two battles, it is the second that takes real strength of character, the reclaiming of her own humanity with all the flaws and “weaknesses” that implies.

When it comes down to it, the cyoborg’s physical strength and disconnect from the concerns of others is, in fact, a flaw. Her true strength of character lies in her recognition of that, and in her determination to regain a sense of compassion.


5 thoughts on “Lack of Empathy is not Strength”

  1. There is a movie with William Hurt called ‘The Doctor”. It gives brilliant insight on the meaning of the word with simplicity and realism, and yet hits home harshly. I haven’t forgotten the lessons the film taught me. It was quite chilling to see how easily we can lose empathy under the guise of being good at our job and therefore we have to manage our time better. Less time for our clients and patients seems justified and intelligent. Even fulfilling family responsibilities and friendships is reduced to token gestures, many token gestures but no real giving of ourselves, of our hearts. The realisation that real empathy means real involvement is, dare I say, voluntarily lost.

    Empathy is a link to each other and humanity as a whole. Understanding this places great demands on us to act. If you have empathy you can’t just stand by. I look forward to reading your series. I think the choice of empathy is a good one in this current climate.


  2. I think you make excellent sense, Kay: great article!
    I hope the measured loss of empathy is only true for the US (where the study was performed), and not a more general worldwide trend. If it is, the human race is in for serious trouble. My hope that it’s a US-centric phenomenon relates to the firm US belief that “success” in life is wholly attributable to the individual’s efforts and abilities, and unrelated to luck, or to any help they may have received. It’s my firm opinion that that belief is intrinsically damaging to a healthy society. It encourages an acceptance of inequality (which the US has, unfortunately, developed to an unprecedented degree among Western democracies).
    But on the topic of a strong female character (or a strong male character), I believe it’s not related to how they treat others: it’s how firmly they believe and act on the truths that are important to them, and how hard they will fight to preserve those truths. And I agree, the 2015 Cinderella showed enormous strength of character. I also think Carina Chocano has mistaken “self-centered” for “strong”: if a lot of people agreed with her, it suggests there’s been a massive loss of empathy (or emotional intelligence) amongst those people.


    1. Thanks for the comment, Luke.
      I think that the current climate is related to encouraging people to be strong in the sense you say, of acting on the truths that are important to them, but without enough consideration that what is right and true on a personal level can be very damaging to others. In that sense, personal “strength” could be equated to self-centredness.
      I love a good kick-ass heroine as light entertainment, or even wish-fulfillment, but should we call these women “strong” with the approval that implies? Maybe I’ve just read too many books in which someone tries to save a loved one, ends up hurting (or killing) multiple others in the process, and does not bat an eyelid.


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