Empathy, narcissism and survivor status

I appreciate that this is a dismal issue, but… there’s an awful dynamic that can take hold in informal circles purposed to supporting survivors of abuse, or discussing the politics of support, and I guess it’s borne of a kind of black and white thinking; the victim can’t also be the perpetrator. By this, I don’t mean that we should blame the victim for their own mistreatment, but rather, that there probably needs to be greater recognition that abuse survivors aren’t magically immune from also enacting abuse against others, and further that they are capable, if willing, of enabling abuse if they’re not willing to get their hands dirty themselves.

Abuse, while providing a particularly horrid array of experiences, doesn’t actually qualify a recipient in combating or preventing more of the same further down the line. If this were true, it’d be marginally easier to break free from abusive relationships – some of the trap is often socio-economic, but so much of it is a mind game as well.

In social circles with an emphasis on empathy, we’re told to respect, and if we can, emulate other perspectives, particularly those of survivors. But this doesn’t actually provide terribly much in the way of solutions, so much as it provides a qualitative approximation of a set of problems.

Using empathy in dealing with survivors can be like walking the proverbial tight rope.


The other thing about empathy, in addition to being potentially perspective widening, is that it also makes you vulnerable to narcissists and other apaths. This doesn’t mean you should categorically suspend your empathy, but rather that you need to be aware that given the chance there will inevitably be individuals who view you as an easy mark.

This doesn’t mean that they have to see you as a potential victim – although they could – but rather that you’re an angle for gratification. Maybe you’ll provide them with their own victims, so they can feel better about their own experiences. Maybe you’ll provide them access to a potential pool of followers for their egos to be stroked because they’ve always liked their egos stroked since day dot.

Narcs are pervasive minority that cut across all manner of social groupings. Expecting that your group operates in isolation from this could very well be folly.


For seemingly the umpteenth time in the past few years, I’ve just seen a rape survivor condescend to another on the topic of what they’re allowed to feel anxious about (particularly in relation to the proximity of penises). There was no immediate indication in this case of whether or not PTSD was involved, wherein the sight of a penis was a trigger, but I’ve already run across a couple of incidents of rape survivors gaslighting rape survivors wherein it was.

It takes a special kind of callousness to barge into an online support group for lesbian victims of rape, and just tell them the harden the fuck up and get used to cocks; that “feminism” means they should be infallibly strong, and not so (supposedly) self-pitying. And yet I found out that a former acquaintance, herself a rape survivor, did exactly this. I’ve since resolved to pay more attention to the warning signs.

Who are you going to trust in these situations? Are you going to have a “who was raped the worst/most?” or a “who is the most oppressed?” competition to determine who to acquiesce to? Are you just going to acquiesce to the loudest party so you don’t get your own ears boxed, or your job threatened? Or are you just going to look at shitty behaviour and call it for what it is, knowing the damage it can cause?

It’s not like narcs are terribly good at showing genuine solidarity with other people even if they are in the same in-group; a part of the definition is that they’re self-absorbed, self-interested and have a poor conception of other people’s personal boundaries. How do you get to the kind of group-affinity required for a supporting environment from there? Well, you don’t.

I’m not arguing that the suffering of apaths is morally unimportant – it is important. It’s just that in the aftermath, involving them in any healing process, or in any attempts to stem ongoing damage, is a task fraught with risk.


You can’t envy people who have to deal with this shit for a living – to simultaneously care, and then have to compartmentalize. It doesn’t help that for any number of reasons, people look to narcissists for direction, sometimes even resulting in those who care – genuinely – taking a hiding.

The trick, I think, in many cases is this:

Step 1: Find a group of people who like you, have suffered a certain abuse, but unlike you, are not apaths. Preference those individuals with the most over-developed doubts – they’ll need you more. Identify with them on the basis of your shared bad experiences if you can. Even if you don’t belong to this group – even if you haven’t been abused at all – this trick can be pulled off by “good allies” as well. These broken people are your base.

Step 2: Find an argument or statement that advocates the interests of your base that is just and obviously so, except to the obtuse – you will need the obtuse; they’re your foil. “Abuse is bad” is far too obvious, but there’s just enough ambiguity around topics like victim blaming for you to never be redundant in condemning it, while importantly, for your supporters to harbor their own doubts and insecurities about certain specifics.

Step 3: Memeify your objection. Make it rote. Make it repeatable. Make it short. It needn’t be ill considered, but it can be, provided it rings true, provided it can be easily repeated by supporters, and provided it has the short, percussive force required of an interruption. It can educate, it can inform, but it is not purposed to this end so don’t bother wasting your time worrying. Also, don’t worry terribly much about plagiarism when working up your material, although you may need to develop a portfolio of memes to rotate through so as not to evoke ennui.

Step 4: Establish your creds by finding an obtuse, enabling sort who’s spouting horseshit about your people’s situation that you have just the bromide for – an easy if near-universally annoying target – and firing your rote objection at them for the benefit of your base as an audience. Your audience will see you being confident in the face of mendacity, in support of their cause, and they will feel more confident for it by extension. They’ll even try to emulate you. But not being narcs themselves they’ll be dependent on you for that confidence going forward too, which is by and large the point. Repeat as necessary to instill the required level of emotional dependency in your base.

Step 5: Reap the rewards. Construe any frustration or slight as being an attack on your person, and by extension an attack on your base by way of your shared social grouping/allegiance. Don’t worry too much about stretching the logic beyond breaking point. On the whole your base will gladly support you, and even overlook abusive behaviour on your part. Remember that for a lot of them, to lose you is to loose their newfound confidence. If you’re really canny, you can get them to attack people who’ve only ever had their best interests at heart, or attack other members of their own group. Maybe you can even get a medical practitioner fired!

Of course, all of this requires you to be a cynical narc. I’m not sure you the reader can actually manage this, and if you can’t, well good for you for being that much better a human being.


Stepping entirely back out of semi-satirical mode, I’m not actually sure that the various narcs I’ve seen engaging in this kind of behaviour have actually planned it. It just seems to come naturally to them; they just gravitate towards the exploitable, have a penchant for thinly-veiled self-serving ideation, and a need to weaponize people in the service of their own egos.

And yeah, I’ve seen it derail and break up more than one informal support group. This is especially when the narc in question no longer needs their base, and can benefit personally by doing a deal with some entrenched power broker.

Old support base? Get under the bus!

My point in all of this again, while simple to repeat but difficult to execute: If you want to take care of abused people, you have to entertain the possibility that some of their number may aim to further the abuse, and have some idea of how you’re going to respond. And yeah, if you’re obviously aware of this, any narc in question may just try to single you out in order to make things go more smoothly (for them). The fact that they may have survivor status doesn’t change any of this.

Leaven your empathy with situational awareness.

~ Bruce

Self-indulgence and political lexicon

I’ve had a conversation with a friend today, who I’ve known since the ‘80s. He’s a decent bloke. Imperfect like all of us, but fundamentally decent like a lot of folks aren’t; he’s very sincere and more than most he doesn’t want folks hurt. He’s stood up to some pretty noxious fuckwittery when most others wouldn’t.

Only – gasp – like most people, he’s not at the bleeding edge of political terminology and he doesn’t pretend to be; not the academic variety, nor the Tumblr dialect. Accuse me of having low standards if you want, but I think this is perfectly bloody well acceptable.

But this post isn’t about him. (Sorry D).

There’s been an attempt to school him these past couple of days, in response to which he’s remained mostly open and not-too defensive. The manner in which this “schooling” has taken place is, unfortunately, familiar.


Rote repetition of talking points: Anyone who’s studied towards an education degree worth half a fart in a bottle or more, knows that exposition is a bad way to teach conceptual knowledge. Learners aren’t passive recipients of knowledge, they have to engage to learn. Stating facts or opinions at them will not magically result in understanding.

Spurious citation: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was recommended as a general starter on the topic of oppression, and I certainly seconded this recommendation in private correspondence. The problem though, is that specifically we had folks trying to nut things out on their own Facebook page, on a friends-only post, in relation to the language of trans politics, with others rocking up to “educate” them through rote repetition and citing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Now, if you’re familiar with Adichie you’ll note that she’s not automatically accepting of the terms of trans politics, nor the kinds of conversations where people are just blindly accepting in general – this issue went viral only a few months ago. Thus, it’s hard to credit the person dropping her name as being familiar with her work. Anyone who’s seen enough undergrads pretend to have done the readings will know how this comes across.

Conspicuous self-aggrandizement: There was more than one person trying to do the “schooling”, but two were conspicuous; one, a presumptively woke marketing type (i.e. superficially progressive up front, and Pepsi commercial all the way down out back), and the afore mentioned rote fan of Adichie. The latter was incredibly condescending, while the former – Pepsi – fark… I looked up her “About Me” page on her professional website and the kind of language she used to describe herself… Don’t get me wrong: women cop all sorts of unfair shit just for being confident in a way that men don’t, but this was something else. She claimed among other incredible things, as a professional writer, to have a “unique” ability to capture “perfect” tone; she was literally saying that only she is perfect at tone!

(I don’t want to start a bun fight over this, as it’s pretty obvious from my position that no party involved is interested, so I’ll be depriving you of a link to her literary supremacy. You can either thank me or scold me later).

Cool words: You could call it the semiotics of woke narcissism if you liked. Take a term that may or may not have political salience, and use it as a signifier of your supposed awareness. Never mind if your use correlates well with the way social scientists use it, or understanding the way the person who coined it intended (oh, the ever-present pretense of being “intersectional” – never mind trying to understand Crenshaw et. al.), or – gasp – asking questions about the assumptions underlying the terminology; wear it like a fucking badge! If you ever experience frustration “educating” people, just say-the-words, and if your interlocutor doesn’t immediately fall into line, then they just aren’t “woke” like you.

Think of the words as being like a spell from Harry Potter, except for casting at Sheeple to illuminate just how not-like-you they are.

The Passive Aggressive “Lol”: I don’t mean the incredulous “ha ha, you’re clearly full of shit” “Lol” – that’s unequivocal, up-front and even sometimes sincere. I’m talking about what is essentially the same “Lol” used by MRAs and Douchebros who’re setting you up for an “only kidding” when you get “irrational”. A friend was commenting on this phenomena just before D copped his “schooling”. Basically, the supposedly “lolling” are unwittingly signifying that they’re going to abuse or at least be rude to you in one way or another if you don’t fall into line, and if you respond critically, or angrily (even if warranted), you’re going to be told to calm the fuck down or otherwise gaslighted.

Splitting: Otherwise known as “black and white thinking”, albeit more associated with Cluster B personality disorders from the DSM. You know the phrase “It’s not about you, don’t make it about you”? It has a bit of utility, often when defensive white men get pissy and try to derail discussions of race and sex. But it can also be invoked speciously, and for motives that aren’t even remotely altruistic. Some folks will say “It’s not about you, don’t make it about you”, when what they mean is “It’s not about you, it’s about me. It’s always about me. I am my classes’ representative. Hell, it’s almost as if my class doesn’t exist! IT’S JUST MEMEMEMEME!” Alternatively, some folks will use “It’s not about you, don’t make it about you”, when they’ve just started a discussion that focuses heavily or even exclusively on you. I’ve seen people on the receiving end of that one, too. Blech.

The thing is, when this phrase is used in all sincerity, it’s used to address someone else’s derailing of the conversation for the sake of their ego. But there are people who behave – pathologically – as if any conversation that is not about them is a conversation that is being being derailed. They act as if it’s a zero sum game where it has to be about someone’s ego; yours or theirs, not neither or both. Someone is always the dominator in conversation and everyone else must be the dominated. Ego-driven Black. And. White. Thinking.

I’d coin a rule, only I don’t have a name for it, but I think it’s a truism that any rhetorical device used to combat derailment can be re-purposed to perform derailment, all while retaining some semblance of being purposed for maintain relevance. The person likely to be doing just this will be an egoist.


Now, pretty much everyone in the Facebook conversation who I consider a friend, or could ever conceive of being a friend of, was some variation of lefty. Not necessarily academically inclined, and not necessarily activists, but people who would never vote conservative, and who’d be more inclined than most to tell racist or sexist abusers to back the fuck off – too their faces. People who all regard Cory Bernadi as not being a decent human being. None of them are huge fans of neoliberal economics either. So there’s a general consensus, among those in the conversation that I give a shit about, that left wing political aims in general are at least somewhat desirable.

It’s hard to imagine the presumptively woke opposing this too strongly. I think it’s safe to assume, actually, that they’ve obligated themselves to sentiment along these lines.

The thing is though, is that the left absolutely needs to be able to discuss its own ideology unflinchingly. Sure, there are people who’ll peddle the “I’m just asking questions” gambit, and troll their way through discussions under false pretenses, but this doesn’t negate the need for discussion, it just makes it more difficult.

Members of the left aren’t cannon fodder to be drafted around the political scene by self-appointed generals. Some degree of autonomous organization is needed in order to campaign effectively, and that means that committees and individuals and so-on, will to varying extents need to be able to think for themselves just to ensure a chance of political success. The head honchos can’t have perfect and absolute oversight, and certainly not in real-time – that’s simply not possible. (Nor is it even remotely close to reasonable that any given self-identified leader should just be handed over even a smidge of power on their say-so).

Hell, folks need to be given a margin of error, too. They can’t know all the things and they don’t need to.

You just can’t understand the political concepts that are in play without discussing them critically first; without subjecting them to thought experiment,  case study, critique or the like. Terminology needs to be teased apart on some level just in order to be understood, improved, or heaven forbid, rejected for contradicting core values. And this is before even considering the matter that discussing these things is a basic human right – I’m just arguing in terms of pragmatism at this point. You just don’t get this necessary kind of understanding from being talked at, and then submitting.

The shutting down of discussion in this manner functions to serve the political right, but is purposed to serve a sub-section of the presumptively left; narcissists in the guise of altruists. It is crucial for the left to get a handle on this shit, and to stop giving free passes to the raving egoists who engage in it. That person blasting you on your Facebook timeline may even be technically correct, but they’re an asshole, and they’re not doing it for the cause – they’re doing it for their own indulgence at the expense of the cause.

Their method is wrong.

~ Bruce