Of Conditional Empathy

Calling out the rhetoric of dehumanisation

Hello friends,

I was scrolling Instagram one day when I came across the question “does your empathy come with conditions”? It struck me forcibly, and when I shared it on LinkedIn, others had the same reaction.

You see, what I observed in the rhetoric about Palestinians (mostly Brown, mostly Muslim) was similar to what I’ve seen for other groups before, notably, but not exclusively Black people. It can happen to ANY group that is deemed less than in particular circumstances.

The playbook includes dehumanisation - watch out when one group starts calling another “animals”.

It includes impossible standards of behaviour - if the target group doesn’t show “good behaviour” then they are somehow less worthy.

It includes whataboutery - again, reinforcing the idea that actions from one group make them somehow less worthy of consideration and compassion.

It includes devil’s advocacy, which is very similar.

And it is all underpinned by a lack of empathy.

We see it all the time when Black people are shot and killed by the US police; we see it when Black and Brown people are displaced from their homes and seeking refuge; and we’ve seen it in relation to Palestine, as if to suggest that because of the actions of one group, ALL Palestinians should be exterminated. There is never an excuse for genocide which is something nobody should have to say but somehow we do.

You know where we don’t usually see the whataboutery and dehumanisation? When the people concerned have paler skin. I’m not looking to be divisive here, just noting how often media coverage and other narratives support the idea of empathy for those who have paler skin or are supported by those with paler skin. The coverage of those fleeing war in Ukraine versus those fleeing war in formerly colonised countries was an obvious example.

And let me be clear: I am not saying that any innocents deserved to die - they absolutely did not. Because I’m also watching with a beady eye those who think calling for Palestinian liberation is an excuse to attack Jewish people. It is not. In fact, that’s also part of the white supremacist, colonialist playbook, which as anti-racists, we should all reject.

As I’ve said before, I will not celebrate anyone's death. And I will not countenance Islamophobia or antisemitism.

But I worry that some people think they are the arbiters of who should have the right to live and thrive without oppression. Who think that oppression is sometimes justified because of what people look like. None of this is a surprise - as I said, this playbook has been running for centuries.

But it’s worth pointing out that when people say “never again”, when they say that “we are better people now” and “the wrongs of the past won’t be repeated”, what ACTUALLY happens doesn’t support that at all.

Yes, we have the potential to do better and BE better, but many of us don’t take it. That makes me very sad.


Thanks for reading,


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© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2023. All Rights Reserved.

I am an anti-racism educator and activist, Co-Founder of Mission Equality, the author of “I’m Tired of Racism”, and co-host of The Introvert Sisters podcas

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