Sometimes when I read about incels (involuntary celebates), I can’t help but feel empathy.
I know about sexual repression and frustration, the merciless grip of unsatisfied desire on your body and psyche. Desire can be a cruel tyrant if you do not pay her due. I know of the bitter question that might spring to mind at the sight of contented lovers — why not me? I spent my life from puberty to the age of 19 as an involuntary celibate, and it was a major need, the gravest problem in my young and inexperienced mind. So my empathetic instincts are triggered by incels, as if I feel a kind of kinship with them.
But there is no kinship. I was never one of them. Even when I was a teenager who thought his sex-deprivation was a grave injustice, I never blamed women or girls. I blamed a theocratic and conservative society that erected walls between the genders, made sex taboo for men and doubly for women, and taught us—but taught women doubly the same lesson—to feel shame in our body and in our urges.
I didn’t blame the individual for the crimes of the society, I blamed the society itself. An incel does the exact opposite: he blames the woman and nothing else. To me, the solution to my problem was not government-mandated distribution of women, but democracy, liberty, and feminism. I knew that I, too, was a victim of patriarchy. No, I’m no kin of incels.
And since I turned 19 and had sex for the first time, I have been a living repudiation of the incel worldview. I’m a fat, poor, short, average-looking person who has consistently had relations with women far above my “league,” women who were attractive, knowledgeable, and some well-off. In the incel worldview, a woman only dates those who are conventionally more attractive than she is and then marries a rich man. I’m a living evidence against this worldview.
No, I’m no kin of incels.
Then why the rush of empathy? Why the need to extend your hand across the screen and slap them in the face, yelling “Fix yourself” at these fools? Why the pain, the feeling of dread and worry, as if one sees one’s loved ones on a path to degradation? Why the instinct to say “I feel you”, when I know that I don’t truly feel them?
Sometimes when I read about serial killers, I can’t help but feel some empathy for them. I watched the entire interview with Jeffrey Dahmer and felt bad for him. I felt that the journalist was a repulsive man. Between the serial killer and the journalist, I began feeling empathy for the one who had killed and raped and eaten human beings, and on his behalf I felt annoyed at the other one whose only crime was being lewd and voyeuristic. Even the proponents of relative morality would concede that between the two men, one was absolutely the worse.
I have never been blessed with a want of empathy. If someone informs me that their head is aching, my head starts to ache. I always cry when someone’s pet dies and they post the sad news on Facebook. I cannot help but feel empathy, it is an automatic reaction like closing my eyes when something sharp approaches it, even though my eyelids are too puny to stop the threat.
There are those who deserve empathy. There are those who should transfer their pain into the hearts of strangers, and this pain might lead to better understanding and behavior. Victims of sexual assault, victims of bigotry, victims of poverty. There are many behaviors that do not affect me personally when they are targeted at me, and I only understand to avoid them by being the proxy of other people’s experience. In that sense, empathy can do good.
But also, empathy can go wrong. You might feel empathy for the incels, but you must never allow that to impact your judgment, your actions, and your attitude. Incels are proponents of rape and fascism. They don’t deserve empathy. Their targets do. But your empathy might draw a cloth on your eyes and move you to minimize their harm, to transform them into something they are not. You might end up defending them — while you’re only defending the product of your own misguided empathy.
Empathy can be good, but it is overrated. Empathy is not the source, nor the ultimate guide to morality, nor it is the distinguishing factor between good and evil people. Empathy is an emotion, a human impulse. And like all impulses, it must be regulated, checked, and verified by reason and abstract principles.