Empathy: Igniting Force for Social Action

Now that the mainstream media has finally caught on to the importance of the Occupy Wall Street protests, I feel like I can go back to using this space to explore some other questions that have been niggling at me lately.

Last week there were not one but TWO op-ed pieces in the NY Times about empathy–both responding to Harvard Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker’s new book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.  I haven’t read Pinker’s book yet, but I gather that he argues that humans have become more empathetic of late, and thus less violently aggressive towards one another.

Honestly, I haven’t noticed any decline in violence recently, have you? We still haven’t had a year go by without war erupting somewhere on the planet, and usually in many places at once. Men are still raping and battering women in alarming numbers all over the globe.  Suicides are up, and that deadly malaise I’ve talked about before subjects many of us to a constant low-level form of self-directed aggression.

But what I really want to think about are the two reactions to Pinker’s book, published last week in the Times by columnists David Brooks (conservative political pundit) and Benedict Carey (science reporter).  Both were extremely negative about the potential for empathy to be a positive force for social change.

Brooks argues that “Empathy makes you more aware of other people’s suffering, but it’s not clear that it actually motivates you to take moral action or prevents you from taking immoral action….

“Nobody is against empathy,” he says. “Nonetheless, it’s insufficient. These days empathy has become a shortcut. It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them. It has become a way to experience the illusion of moral progress without having to do the nasty work of making moral judgments.”

Brooks ends his column by proffering “sacred codes” as an alternative to mere empathy.  “Think of anybody you admire,” he says. “They probably have some talent for fellow-feeling, but it is overshadowed by their sense of obligation to some religious, military, social or philosophic code. They would feel a sense of shame or guilt if they didn’t live up to the code. The code tells them when they deserve public admiration or dishonor. The code helps them evaluate other people’s feelings, not just share them.”

The problem with this formula is obvious.  Sacred codes are all very well, as long as they don’t direct their adherents to, say, “exterminate the cockroaches,” as was the cry both in Nazi Germany and in Hutu Rwanda.

Benedict Carey comes up with another objection to empathy as a trigger for social action: people are much more likely to feel for and want to help a single victim whose story is well-told, than to reach out to help in a major disaster involving millions of unnamed victims.  We get “compassion fatigue” pretty quickly, and if we are fed enough sad stories, we begin to get “psychic numbing,” where we lose our ability to feel any empathy at all.

Carey ends his piece by suggesting that psychic numbing may actually serve a useful purpose.  People charged with trying to help victims of disaster or tragedy are better able to function, he says, if they are not wallowing in empathy.

“In his book “Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima,” the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton argued that rescue workers at Hiroshima were able to function at all only because they succeeded in “turning off” their feelings of compassion. He called that process “psychic numbing,” too, and it’s a reminder that empathy may be a limited resource for a reason.  Real action, when it’s called for, often requires a cool heart, if not a cold one.”

So here we have, within the space of a single week, two well-respected intellectuals arguing that empathy may be overrated. Both maintain that empathy can actually get in the way of constructive action.

I have thought quite a bit about this very issue, since so much of my teaching over the years has involved exposing young people to narratives of political struggle with the goal of awakening their empathy as a first step on the road to positive social action.

Very rarely have students complained to me that the narratives of testifiers like Ismael Beah, Fadumo Korn or Rigoberta Menchu have caused their circuits to bust into “psychic numbing” mode.

And while it may be true that the experience of empathy is not enough in itself to produce the kind of social change called for by the testifiers in these narratives, it is still an important and necessary first step for potential allies from outside the given cultural context of the narrative.

In her closing essay to my first anthology, Women Writing Resistance: Essays on Latin America and the Caribbean, Julia Alvarez invoked the simple, hopeful expression of human connection exemplified in the phrase, “Here, let me help you with that.”

Gloria Anzaldua also wrote about the importance of situating oneself in the liminal space between self and other, which she named “nepantla,” the space of the borderland.

Those of us who have been blessed with privilege may never venture into that borderland space of connection and social change unless we are jarred into awareness by a jolt of empathy.  It may just never occur to us to reach out a helping hand.

I teach literature because I believe in the power of stories to provide this crucial explosive charge of understanding, which Simona Sharoni, who visited the Simon’s Rock Junior Proseminar today, calls “compassionate resistance.”

It’s true that this is a starting point, not an end in itself.  But it’s a critical ignition stage, not to be under-estimated.

I wonder about the subtexts of these two Times columns this week, both putting down the value of empathy a means towards social change.  Just what are these guys afraid of?

Whatever it is, Rachel Corrie found out how dangerous that fear–or lack of empathy–can be.

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