Wednesday, 11 April 2012

The Empath

Comparing the intelligence of men and women is like comparing the usefulness of cars and tractors - they are similar, but designed for different uses. Cars will completely fail to perform tasks that tractors do all day long, and no matter how hard they are pushed, and how much fuel they consume, tractors will never be useful for the same things as cars. 
Of course, that all depends on where one draws the line between useful and pointless. This is down to which individual is drawing the line, and the individual set of circumstances surrounding the task to be performed.
'Intelligence' is also a subjective term, and I think that this is something that people forget. A study is a good study until it is disproved. The IQ test is generally accepted as a good barometer, but is also successfully challenged on a regular basis.
Let's not debate the subjectivity of the word 'success' right now eh? ;)
What is intelligence? The Oxford American dictionary definition reads thus:
Intelligence |inˈtelijəns|
the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills : an eminent man of great intelligence | they underestimated her intelligence.
• a person or being with this ability : extraterrestrial intelligences.
the collection of information of military or political value : the chief of military intelligence | [as adj. ] the intelligence department.
• people employed in this, regarded collectively : French intelligence has been able to secure numerous local informers.
• information collected in this way : the gathering of intelligence.
• archaic information in general; news.
Groan...perhaps intelligence is not a good place to start when comparing the sexes. It seems that the word itself connotes masculinity, at least to some. We need a new word, somewhere between intelligence and empathy, methinks.
If intelligence is about thinking and empathy is about feeling, which is more important for survival? Let's just assume for the sake of argument that it is generally accepted that men are better at thinking and women are better at feeling. Somewhere along the way in history, perhaps a culture has evolved where thinking is deemed more important and useful for survival, and therefore we have structured our society to put the thinkers in charge.
However, Baumeister* makes an excellent point that cultures tend to shield their women from risky situations. When asking the question of which gender is more important to society, Baumeister’s point makes one question whether a conclusion should be drawn based upon which gender is in charge. The question of who is in charge is interesting, but the question of who is deemed important enough to be given the best chance of survival is fascinating. Modern examples that spring to mind are China and their attitude towards baby girls or America and their (some would say) cavalier approach to sending their young men into battle and their utter failure to provide adequate healthcare for their elderly.  
If woman is an empath and man an intellectual, then surely the instinct of many cultures to protect their empaths from the line of fire suggests an understanding that empaths keep families together long enough to successfully procreate. It suggests a perceived value for their intuitive ability to respond to the needs of child and mate, and their instinctive actions to avoid or solve familial discord.
Empaths also make great healers (because to regain health – the aim of modern medicine - is not always to heal), teachers, and stress-relievers (whether through entertainment, nurturing, joviality etc.). Before the intellectuals begin their tasks, during their periods of rest, and after they are done, they need those things. They will be more successful if they have an empath around to hold up a mirror and talk through feelings and prejudices. Emotional implications are challenging to the intellectual, due to their need for order and lack of understanding of emotional processes.
This is not to imply that the male intellectual is incapable of empathy. Just as women hone their intellectual talents, men will often train their intuition. It has been asserted that highly developed empathic skills save many lives during combat. There are many accounts of male soldiers in the jungle in Vietnam just 'knowing' what was about to happen, where an enemy had placed a trap, when to move and when to freeze. These accounts place a large emphasis on an 'extrasensory perception' or 'sixth sense'. It could be argued that this is just the same mechanism in a woman that allows her to know when her children are in trouble 50 miles away. Empathy, intuition, whatever you want to call it, I argue that not only is it real, it is important, and that culturally, we know this and therefore keep our empaths safe. 
It's worth noting that in many native/tribal cultures, the empath is not necessary female. Native American shamans were more often male. But their function was the same. To use a sense other than one of the main five to assist the tribe with hunting, teaching, fertility, medicine, celebration, entertainment and general wellbeing.
However, the dictionary defines an empath as:
empath |ˈempaθ|
(chiefly in science fiction) a person with the paranormal ability to apprehend the mental or emotional state of another individual.
Paranormal apparently means "beyond the scope of scientific understanding." And this is why, I think, our women as empaths and intuitive beings have historically been undervalued or repressed. Western culture subscribes heavily to science as the dominant belief system, and the primary tool for deciding what is valid and indeed what is 'real' and what is not. It is not surprising that the logical, intellectual male is a big fan of science. After all, science is reasonable. There is a proven reason for all that is deemed real. This doesn’t leave a lot of room for empaths nor spirituality nor anything that cannot be explained through reason.
Most members of native/tribal societies generally agree that there is a lot about the world that they cannot explain, and this is ok, comforting even, because they have a spiritual connection to their environment and do their best to trust their environment to provide for them. They live flexibly in relation to shifting circumstances and give a lot of power and weight to empathy, intuition and spirituality. The western scientific system of generally agreeing to our reality in intellectual terms is inflexible. Everything must be explained, in controlled circumstances, and anything which cannot be is dismissed as not ‘real’ or as ‘hocus pocus’ etc. This system allows intellectuals to thrive, but it disempowers the empath.
While science reigns, the empath can only contribute to the outcomes of the push-pull/proven-disproved nature of scientific society. Unless she wants to develop her intellectual skills, the best the empath can hope for is to fulfil her role as healer, teacher, nurturer, entertainer and stress-reliever as best she can and hope the intellectuals don’t fuck it all up.

*Baumeister, R. (2007) "Is there anything good about men?"