Empathy: lots of lessons but no final words

What can we learn from two weeks of debate?  Empathy must be used to correct injustice, not simply to understand it or feel its associated pain. This is the final article in our series on empathy and transformation

Lennon Flowers Michael Zakaras
11 September 2013

Credit: All rights reserved.

So, is empathy a revolution in the making, a passing fad or somewhere in between? Over the last ten days strong arguments have been made from all three sides. Mary Gordon says that empathy lies at the heart of democracy - it’s the fuel that drives the actions of citizens away from self-interest. If you can take on the perspectives of other people and understand what they are feeling, then you're much more likely to care about them, work together and do less harm.

In the same way empathy is central to the task of building an economy to be proud of – one in which raising and educating children, taking care of the elderly and revitalizing neighborhoods are deemed just as valuable as jobs that are rewarded by the market. Both as a means of tackling challenges at their roots and avoiding the traps of self-congratulatory do-gooding, empathy is also a crucial component of effective and inclusive problem-solving.

But it’s equally clear that these ideas have their limits. Empathy alone doesn’t pay the bills as Kristen Zimmerman reminds us. It can’t solve the problems of families who are faced by hundreds of thousands of dollars of medical expenses in America’s hopelessly inefficient health care system. And as Gary Commins points out from the port of Long Beach California, it’s not enough for elected officials and executives to understand the damage that pollution does to human beings: they also have to care enough to put the wellbeing of those affected above their own financial bottom line. 

Out of these contrasting accounts comes one key conclusion: it’s not empathy that matters but a particular kind of empathy. In a 2011 article in the Atlantic magazine, Ta-Nehisi Coates called for a “muscular empathy” that compels us to “come to grips with the disturbing facts of [our] own mediocrity;” to examine not just others’ weaknesses but our own. Following this line of reasoning, empathy must be used to correct injustice, not simply to understand it or explain it, or to feel its associated pain.

We know that there are many environmental circumstances that weaken these “empathetic muscles,” including poverty and dispossession, trauma and repeated exposure to violence, and the frequent use of violent media and video games. Therefore, teaching people perspective-taking and other skills is unlikely to be effective unless we also establish the conditions in which empathy can thrive. And that means creating the kinds of cultures in which caring for one another is both the right and rational thing to do, whether it’s at home or in the classroom, in the workplace, City Hall or the community.

Exercising these muscles in politics and economics, and in activism and education is the best way to address the criticisms that empathy receives: that it deflects attention away from systems to individuals for example, or that it obscures rigorous analysis under a veil of emotion. Muscular empathy demands that we do more than project our own fleeting imaginings onto the lives of other people. It also requires that we work as hard as is needed to understand and support, not just those who look and think like us but those who don’t.

This kind of empathy also compels us to reject the desire to play the hero – an attitude that characterizes “philanthropic colonialism” and the belief that “we” know best. Instead, listening deeply and openly to those who experience injustice becomes the centerpiece of social action, potentially upending the hierarchies and control systems that are corrupting philanthropy and foreign aid. This is solidarity as much as empathy - the bridging of peoples and causes and interests that is essential for transformation.

The bridge has become a powerful symbol in the search for social justice - think of the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965, for example, which crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama. Building bridges, not burning them, may be a more effective way of forging alliances and coalitions that can lead to breakthroughs in politics and economics. It’s here that empathy has a crucial role to play in laying the personal foundations on which these bridges can be constructed.

Bridge-building is hard work of course, and it’s continuous. As the old saying goes, as soon as you’ve painted the Forth Bridge in Scotland you have to start again. Empathy is like that too. Belying its image as something soft, vague and easy, making empathy a daily practice is both tough and demanding. “We have a responsibility to find the cracks and let in some light” as Mary Gordon puts it, “to knock on the door, and if it’s not open for us, to break it in."

So that’s what we should be doing as the conversation continues. There are no final words in the empathy debate, except “keep going.” 

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