The Difference Between Knowledge And Understanding Is Empathy

The Difference Between Knowledge And Understanding Is Empathy’s Matt Zoller Seitz has penned an excellent piece on what white privilege really means, in response to all the horribleness that has been happening in Ferguson. He reminds us that there’s a very big difference between knowing something and truly understanding it.

Picture: symphony of love/Flickr

The difference is empathy, a critical skill we might all benefit from practising more of:

I believe that there’s a difference between knowing something and understanding it. You know how you’ll try to communicate something very important to you to another person and sometimes they will wave you off with an impatient, “I know, I know”? That’s knowing: I got the gist, filed it away, I don’t need to think about it again. Knowing is comprehension; understanding is deeper because it comes from empathy or identification.

Zoller Seitz writes of finally understanding white privilege after an event in which he was spared arrest — or worse — during a confrontation where he had been at fault, but the Hispanic man he had been fighting with was the one the (white) cops handcuffed:

I have no idea what ultimately happened to the other man. Maybe they took him in for questioning. Maybe he spent a night in jail. Maybe they took him to a scrapyard and beat him. Maybe they ran his name through the computer, maybe they didn’t. Maybe he had a criminal record, or maybe he was just a guy like me, a law-abiding citizen with issues.

In the years since, I’ve thought about what would have happened if the positions had been reversed. We know what would have happened.

There’s a much slimmer chance that either of those cops would have patiently listened to the sob story of a drunk brown-skinned man about how he’d ended up on the pavement with his forearm around a white man’s neck, and an equally slim chance that they’d have talked to him for a few minutes and sent him on his way and put the white man in the squad car.

Maybe the other guy was in a bad place, too. Maybe he had kids, too. Maybe he had a sad story, too.

I went home. The other guy didn’t.

Outside of the issue of racism, Zoller Seitz’s post reminds us that to truly understand another person — in any situation — we have to try to look at things from their perspective. Maybe that sounds obvious, but reminders to practise empathy are always worthwhile.

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  • Not sure I believe Empathy can be taught, I believe Empathy is something you either have the capacity for in one form or another, or you don’t… There are sociopaths that seemingly have no empathy and then there are people who have had theirs reduced by experience and desensitisation. I know personally, if I see someone being hurt or picked on, I feel it in my gut, but there are others that take pride in there ability to bypass that visceral emotion, and chop off a mans head without any real sympathy for him or his family..!

    • I agree – I think the capacity for empathy is something you have in varying degrees, rather than something that can be wholly taught. I think (hope) that there would be some improvement in people getting taught some aspects of empathy, though probably not enough to significantly change their perspective. I also know that it is possible to be too empathic – I know a few people who I would consider having too much empathy, which can be quite debilitating (basically an over-sensitivity to others situations).

      Edit: typos

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