Charles Bukowski’s Argument Against Empathy

Remember, there is strength in empathy and kindness, but not at the price of sacrificing our own principles and the power of our voice.

Charles Bukowski’s Argument Against Empathy

Be Kind

By Charles Bukowski

we are always asked
to understand the other person’s
viewpoint
no matter how
outdated
foolish or
obnoxious.
one is asked
to view
their total error
their life-waste
with
kindliness,
especially if they are
aged.
but age is the total of
our doing.
they have aged
badly
because they have
lived
out of focus,
they have refused to
see.
not their fault?
whose fault?
mine?
I am asked to hide
my viewpoint
from them
for fear of their
fear.
age is no crime
but the shame
of a deliberately
wasted
life
among so many
deliberately
wasted
lives
is.

Charles Bukowski has always been a controversial writer. Many love him and think of him as an unconventional genius while there are a lot still who think of him rather as a horny old drunk. The argument could be made that they are both correct.

In this poem, Bukowski makes a point of condemning traditional empathy, or at least the way in which it’s suggested to us as a form of “kindness.” He argues that being empathic and seeing the other person’s perspective is only worthwhile if the perspective has merit.

In today’s political climate, in America specifically, this couldn’t be a more relevant question to explore. Is it worth considering someone else’s side when they aren’t willing to do any of the work to even examine their own viewpoint?

This is where the distinction needs to be made between passive empathy and active empathy.

Passive empathy is our ability to understand someone’s perspective—how they got to their particular viewpoint—and this is incredibly important. Understanding people’s reasons and motivations is what helps us to see ourselves more clearly. It helps us to give our children guidance and to teach them from ours and others’ mistakes.

Active empathy is different. This involves listening and otherwise tolerating different perspectives. This is a good thing when those perspectives vary slightly from our own. However, if we vehemently disagree with someone fundamentally, active empathy can be damaging to ourselves.

Bukowski’s argument is that people who “refuse to see” or even barely examine their own clearly false beliefs don’t deserve his “kindness.” Ironically, despite his caricature of a drunken madman, he is actually a very kind person. For an unkind person wouldn’t even need to ask this question.

Remember, there is strength in empathy and kindness, but not at the price of sacrificing our own principles and the power of our voice.